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The Greylands: Volume VII

The Greylands: Volume VII

 

Susan Skylark

 

Copyright 2016 Susan Skylark

 

 

 

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

Table of Contents:

Upon the Stone

Marked

 

Other Books by this Author, website, etc.

Sample Chapters

 

Author’s Note: These are independent stories, though names and themes may be similar, there is no relation between them.

Upon the Stone:

 

The door creaked ominously on its single hinge in the driving wind while the disapproving clouds glowered uncomfortably overhead, low enough that one might almost reach up and touch their leaden gray fleece. The stone beneath his feet was black as a moonless night with no star for comfort or guide, and so was the bulk of the ruined fortress that hulked before him. He took an involuntary step back, ready to flee at the slightest provocation, and there were many in this dreadful place, but he had not come all this way to back down. He took a deep, steadying breath, caught hold of the thudding door, and stepped into the fortress. His heart gave such a lurch that he thought it might very well give out in terror, for what waited within was far worse than anything that had unsettled him without. The broken wall formed a ring, enclosing a floor of rough-hewn rock with a gory stone in the center the only feature; upon the fractured and uneven wall a hundred skulls grinned wryly from their perch. The macabre accouterments alone were enough to send the boy running, but the creature occupying the bulk of the space was even worse.

The door slammed shut behind him, otherwise he would have fled that very moment, but he was trapped in this ring of death with a creature whose head was level with the crumbling wall, which stood as tall as a man and then half again as high. Its yellow, piggy eyes glowed slightly with hunger and vile intent while a cruel sneer marred its face, revealing too many pointed, greenish teeth. It clutched a fell axe in arms as big around as a horse’s leg and howled at him in a voice whose merest whisper would send a seasoned Knight slinking away in terror. Darkly it laughed, “lay down your head boy and rest a moment, then I’ll gnaw your bones and add your skull to my collection! Is this not why you came?” Its mockery faded into chiding laughter that sent a chill of horror up the lad’s spine. He looked uneasily back at the door but knew there could be no escape.

The thing laughed again, worse this time if that were possible, and motioned towards the door, which then creaked slightly ajar, continued he in a voice full of scorn, “run if you will, little coward! Braver, stronger, and wiser folk than you have done just that!” Its laughter bit like a lash as the boy took a step towards his salvation, but he shuddered and forced himself to move towards the Stone, still wet with the blood of the last victim. The ogre quit laughing and sneered at the boy, “still here are we? Then let’s get on with it, shall we?” Taking a deep breath, the boy knelt before the grisly rock and laid his neck upon the altar. The monster laughed mirthlessly and hefted the axe. The boy heard the ogre’s grunt as it swung, he tensed for the blow, and then all was silence.

The boy blinked, wondering what had happened. He waited for what seemed an eon, but still nothing happened. At last, he raised his head and glanced about, blinking once more in utter astonishment. Gone was the crumbling ruin and its grisly collection, there was no axe wielding monster tensed for the kill; the clouds were high and thin, a veil over the first bold stars, and away in the west a golden band, fringed in pink and scarlet, bade the sun farewell. The Stone still lay before him however, glistening black in the twilight with fresh blood. He shuddered and wondered why it was he lingered in this place or why he had come at all.

“Will your heart fail you even now, child?” came a voice gentle and warm as a summer evening.

He looked up into eyes so deep he might well drown therein and rejoice at his fate. Here were power, wisdom, strength, joy, humor, beauty, wonder, and so many things for which he had no name: deeper and broader and wider than the universe itself. Yet there was sorrow too, a sense of grief so great that it might well rend the world asunder, yet it was willingly borne, for it was the very price of Love. He shivered now in wonder, awe, and with an overwhelming sense of smallness, insignificance, and wretchedness, yet he knew that to this Person, he was immensely dear. So precious that He would spill out His own Life to rescue this hapless child of men from his own folly, and so He had done. The boy glanced again at the Stone and at last understood its significance, the importance of this place. He shuddered in abject dread, who was he to tread this sacred ground? The very reason for his coming was forgotten. He was a fool! A proud, cringing fool! He looked again into those fathomless eyes but found no condemnation there, only an amused smile that seemed to say, ‘do not be silly child, you could not come had I not Called you.’

The boy trembled in relief and joy while simultaneously flinching at his own wretchedness. Those eyes now held grief indeed, but hope glimmered just beneath the surface and love suffused it all. He whispered like the stars in their silent chorus above, “I can take it, everything, but you must give it willingly and receive what I shall give in its stead.”

The boy’s heart cried, ‘yes,’ even as his mind quailed, “but what if…?’ He silenced his overcautious mind as his soul cried out the more. The Man’s eyes fell to the bloody Stone and the boy’s gaze followed after. He blanched in horror, but knew what it was he must do. There was no other way, the price was too great, he could not pay it himself, the blood of Another was all that would suffice and it had been freely given. Now it must be as freely received. He steeled himself, looked once more into those wonderful eyes, radiant with Joy, and took the blood shed on his behalf upon his tongue. The world went dark and then there was nothing but Light.

The light vanished in the west, the stars shone brightly above, and a little wind laughed and danced upon that silent mountaintop, keeping tryst with that lonely Stone.

 

Bayard blinked blearily awake to the familiar cacophony of sparrows squabbling amongst themselves in the thatch above him; he sighed heavily, it had been a dream, nothing more. A long, grueling journey of a dream with a horrid crescendo and a wondrous finale, so wonderful that he deeply regretted his return to waking life. He smiled ruefully to himself, wondering if he had the courage to set out on a months’ long journey across vast stretches of wild and foreign country, all for the sake of a legend, and then to abandon everything he was, or thought he was, and embrace a philosophy so backwards to the way the world actually worked. He laughed again, but there was little heart in it, for some deep part of him wished acutely that it could be true. What else did he have to look forward to? He must accompany his half-brother on a journey no less arduous than his imagined trek, but once it was accomplished, he had no hope of a noble purpose or a worthy cause, merely a different life of toil and obscurity, exactly what he had here, just with a change of address. He sighed heavily once more, brushed the worst of the straw from his person, and descended from the drafty garret that was his bedchamber.

He hastened outside to begin his chores, knowing they must set forth today but not before his work was done. Sitting impudently on one of the buckets he meant to use to fetch water was a magpie, preening himself as if he had not a care in the world. The boy shook his head at the foolish creature’s lack of vigilance and tried to shoo the pesky bird away, but it would not be shooed. It simply ceased its attention to its feathers and gazed at him with its too knowing eyes. The boy fell to his knees in astonishment; he knew those eyes and they had no place in the head of this small carrion fowl. The bird seemed to smile, ruffled its feathers eagerly, and then cocked His head at the stymied youth, laughed He like all the brooks in the world, “a dream indeed! Come child, you cannot call something a dream just because it is incomprehensible to your current sensibilities; miracle would be far more apt. Yes, you did set forth on a journey of some months’ duration and then had a strange encounter on a certain mountaintop, and yes this is the morning after you set out. You are in very truth in two places at once, but what is that to the One who invented Time?”

He flitted from His perch on the bucket to the boy’s shoulder and continued conversationally, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to walk about with the Creator of the Universe in avian form upon one’s shoulder, “take up your buckets lad, the day wastes. I can speak as you work. I know you fled this place to avoid just such a fate, but you must accompany your brother on this journey, even as your other self is off to climb a certain mountain. Last night you gave yourself fully to Me and this is what I would have of you, distasteful as if might seem to you at the moment. There is far more at work here than a simple dispute between brothers or the favor a father might show to one son but not the other. If you regret what you have done, now is the moment of your escape.” He cocked his head in question and felt a shudder of horror rack the lad’s thin frame as a look of terror in his eyes asked if he could truly be thus forsaken.

The magpie chirruped a laugh, “nay lad, I will not cast you aside, only you can do that. I merely offer you a chance of escape, if you regret what it is you have done, for things will grow far stranger and more difficult once you embark upon this quest. Your soul is utterly doomed without Me, but I keep none against their will; each must choose his own fate. You can scorn Me, but I shall never forsake you. Will you do as I ask?” The boy nodded, wide-eyed and eager, even as he went about the mundane tasks to which he had daily attended for most of his life. The magpie squawked in joy, flitted into the air, and vanished into the trees that encroached upon the village. The boy stared after in wonder, but shook himself and returned to his chores ere the neighbors carried word to his mother that he was daydreaming when he should be attending to his work. Rejoicing for no reason any one else could comprehend, Bayard went about his business and had his tasks finished ere his half-brother Tyne had even arisen from his bed. And most astonishing of all, he was actually looking forward to the journey he had once fled home to escape.

Tyne frowned at him as he emerged from his own room, wondering what the fool was so excited about. Anything that caused this much anticipation on the part of his elder half-brother must be quickly quashed on general principle, the fatherless wretch did not deserve to be happy, and more importantly, because Tyne enjoyed nothing more. Snarled he, “what are you so excited about?”

Bayard froze in terror, was it that obvious? His heart gave another of those disconcerting lurches, but a more sensible voice whispered in his heart, ‘none can pluck you from My hand.’ He relaxed visibly and turned slowly to face his brother, schooling his features to neutrality, said he, “are you not eager to be gone? Do you not grow weary of life here? Come, brother! Our journey awaits!”

Tyne roared, “never call me that! We may be born of the same woman but that is the end of our relationship. I am the Rider’s son; you belong to no one. As for the journey, what right have you to be excited? Only toil and servitude await you there, exactly what you have always known here. There can be little difference. Now go finish our preparations while I take my morning meal.”

Bayard did not recoil in terror and shame as he once might have done, for he knew to Whom he belonged, regardless of what awaited him at journey’s end, and somehow, that made all the difference. Tyne stared at this unaccustomed lack of flinching and even went so far as to gape when the boy nearly skipped off to begin preparations for their journey. He shook himself, grumbled violently under his breath, and went to see if his mother had breakfast ready yet. She greeted him warmly upon his entering the kitchen and immediately set food before him, though unsettled as he was, he barely touched it. She watched him with worried eyes, wondering if his unease came of second thoughts about the perilous journey that lay before him. He felt her eyes upon him, scowled at her maternal weakness, and stormed from the room. She hastily set his chair upright, attended to his untouched food, and went back to her own tasks, knowing it was unwise to press her son further upon his disquiet.

Bayard entered a few minutes later and asked after provisions for their journey. She studied the boy quietly, hiding her surprise, for she had never seen him so overtly cheerful, especially on the eve of a departure she knew he did not relish. She told him where to find the supplies she had carefully prepared and then asked as casually as she could, “what has Tyne in such a foul mood this morning?”

Bayard actually grinned wryly, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “you will have to ask him; we are not exactly confidants.” Sensing the reason for the lady’s disquiet, he added, “the journey is not the issue, madam, rather I fear my own behavior has somehow upset him.” She sighed in relief, bid him take the food, and be gone. He sighed resignedly, took up the sack of food, and withdrew with a polite nod. She stonily watched him go and returned to her work with a lighter heart, knowing Tyne was simply being Tyne, always annoyed by something his elder sibling said or did, or failed to do. Which set her to wondering why her eldest son was suddenly so comfortable in his own skin and at peace with his once despised fate? It was a strange world indeed.

Tyne returned some hours later, still grumbling to himself, but less agitated. Bayard had just put the final touches on their packing and looked to his half-brother expectantly. Snarled he, “finished at last are you? Took you long enough. I will tell my mother we are leaving and then we shall be off.” Bayard nodded silently as their mother emerged from the house, summoned by Tyne’s voice. Tears glistened unshed in her eyes but she said nothing of her own distress, rather she put on a brave face and wished her youngest son a quick and uneventful journey, sent greetings to his father, and asked if there was aught she could yet do for him.

She turned to Bayard, and said in her stern, matronly way, “stay out of trouble, mind your manners, and listen to your brother.” She nodded once in approval at her own good sense, smiled warmly at Tyne, and then stood upon the doorstep to watch their departure.

Bayard then tried to wrestle the ungainly pack onto his back, an exercise Tyne could not be bothered to assist, but finally got the thing in place. Tyne gave him an exasperated look, took up his own small satchel, and set off with Bayard following after like some bipedal pack animal. Their mother raised a kerchief to her eyes, waved it vigorously as Tyne marched off, and then withdrew into the house to weep in earnest. Bayard turned a last glimpse upon his childhood home, felt no deep sense of loss, and followed silently after into the brightening day.

If the journey had had any other destination or some other companion, it would have been merry enough to satisfy any boy of an adventurous spirit and age. The weather was fine, the scenery bewitching, and they met very little in the way of discomfort or danger upon the way. But Tyne was a grim, condescending companion at best, and a tyrant the rest of the time. No sensible person went willingly to the capital city of Gormanth, only desperation, force, or necessity drove folk thither, but thence did Tyne go, eager to embrace his destiny, while Bayard was given no choice in the matter. As a child with no known father, his fate was to live and die as little more than a nameless slave, wholly dependent on the forbearance of others for even this meager existence. While Tyne was a son of the acclaimed and dreaded Rider, Bayard was nothing and no one, and could never be. Save that a small voice sang in his inmost heart, “you are Mine, I know your name, and you are more than life to Me.” It was this minor detail that made the journey bearable to Bayard, and even gave it some semblance of joy, though it was still fraught as often as not with its share of misery, though he found he could now tolerate it far more easily than he once had, which irked his brother no end.

Bayard did not fault his mother for her harsh treatment of himself and the fawning indulgence with which she regarded his brother. She was merely following the strictures laid down by society and the patterns her own mother had taught her as a girl, not to mention the expectations of Tyne’s esteemed sire. In her eyes, she had only one true son, thus Bayard was merely a servant, an inconvenience best ignored, an embarrassment left over from a youthful indiscretion and the less noticed the better. Tyne was more than happy with this arrangement, and voluntarily, and perhaps far too eagerly, saw to it that Bayard ever and always was kept in his place. Thus it was that his newly born confidence and inexplicable, deep-seated joy unsettled Tyne no end. What right or reason had the wretch to be happy? How could he carry himself as if he owned the world when he could not claim even his soul as his own? The truth that Tyne could not comprehend was that the Owner and Maker of everything had called Bayard child, and thus he was in a way, the possessor of far more than any mortal mind can imagine. But most important of all, he knew Whose he was. He had a place and a purpose and a name, something of which he had never before been possessed, and it filled him with a joy his being could hardly contain.

Tyne was about as joyous a companion as a bear with toothache, and perhaps an ulcer besides. Though he was drawing daily closer to his destiny, the day when all would look to him as they once looked upon his father, he found himself discontent, frustrated, and utterly wretched. His brother’s reasonless joy annoyed him, how could the wretch be happy when he had nothing, never had and never would? And yet Tyne was disconsolate, when he literally had the whole world before him. It was perplexing, it was unfair, and it made his usually grim demeanor far worse, but the more dreadfully Tyne treated his brother, and the more graciously he bore it, the worse his humor became; it was a vicious cycle and solely their arrival in the outlying villages surrounding Gormanth spared them both from fratricide. With journey’s end so near, Tyne smiled eagerly for the first time in months, feeling as if his destiny had arrived at long last, though there would still be years of hard work, plotting, and waiting to accomplish before he achieved his heart’s desire. He would supplant his father and be the next Rider, after all he was his father’s son, was he not?

They both looked about them in wonder and a little dread, they had never seen so great a city nor so many people, and they were only on the outskirts; they had not even reached the city itself. Tyne asked directions of a portly baker, who scowled at the insolent youth but directed him away from the city proper, said he with a shudder, “his Lordship doesn’t dwell within the confines of the city. He wants and needs more room and privacy than Gormanth can afford. Follow this road out of town and you’ll come upon his castle before sunset, if you hurry.” Tyne grunted in response and set off as quickly as he could manage in the pressing crowd. The baker shook his head in exasperation and turned his attention back to the insipid woman who could not quite decide which type of bun she required to impress her guests.

Bayard trudged on as patiently as the mule he felt, ever following Tyne’s hasty footsteps, though grateful that his pack had lightened as their food dwindled and strangely glad not to find their destination within this grim city, though who knew what to expect within the castle of such a dreadful person as rumor held his Lordship to be? At least in this city, there were other people about who had little or nothing to do with their sovereign, at least if they could help it. Within the man’s own abode, would there be anyone not held in his sway? With a last, reluctant look at the dwindling city behind them, he turned his gaze to Tyne’s eagerly striding form and wondered what waited at journey’s end. That Voice sang out anew, “whatever betide, I am always with you and await beyond all things.” He sighed, but this time in contentment, and plodded onwards.

True to the baker’s words, they stood at the gates of a forbidding castle as the sun hastily vanished behind the distant hills. Bayard watched it go with a heavy heart, knowing there would be little enough of light or joy within this grim abode. Tyne was busy arguing his case with the gate guards, expecting all to fall prostrate before him when he announced himself the son and heir of the Rider. Scoffed one of the guards, “get in line, boy. The man has more sons than most villages have people. If what you say is true then you shall have your hearing, until then keep silent and leave your betters in peace.” The boy gaped like a stranded fish, aghast at both this revelation of his own insignificance and to be so treated by a man he had only moments before looked upon as an unimportant menial. Bayard actually felt sorry for his brother, his whole life people had told him he was important and special and he had never questioned their judgment; to be told bluntly by a man that you assume to be your inferior, especially after a months’ long journey, that you are nothing special must come as quite a shock. The guard used the silence of the boy’s continued astonishment to say, “you can spend the night with the gate keeper and someone will hear your case when an opportunity presents itself. Now off with you!”

Bayard took Tyne by the shoulder and steered him in the direction the man had indicated, for once in his life Tyne did not resist or insult his brother but went as docilely as a blind ewe following the flock. Bayard knocked upon the door, briefly told their tale to the unassuming man who answered the summons, and then guided his speechless brother inside when the man stepped aside. He shut the door firmly behind them and pointed them to a pallet off to one side of the room, where Bayard immediately shucked off his burden and then returned to his silent and unmoving brother, still agape with shock and indignation. The gatekeeper studied the boy with a pitying smile and said, “just found out he wasn’t the only son of the Rider did he?” Bayard nodded and the man shook his head, “a pity they have to learn such a hard truth at so vulnerable a moment. The man could at least tell his countless offspring that they are far from unique.” He glanced about uneasily, smiled conspiratorially, and said, “but I think he enjoys the cruelty of it far more than he cares about the welfare of any of his offspring or even the entire get. What of you lad?”

Bayard shook his head and said with an ironic smile, “according to our mother I have no father at all.”

The man nodded matter-of-factly and said, “perhaps a better lot than your stymied half-brother there. At least you had no grand aspirations to destroy, but still a wretched lot in its own right. You’ll find nothing but toil and death here lad, I’d get me gone as quick as may be.”

Bayard smiled wryly, “that was my intent sir, in fact I did run away from this very journey, but I found myself back where I began and bidden hither by One I dare not disoblige.”

The man smiled grimly, “then well met indeed lad, though it will be a dangerous and difficult life in which you will soon find yourself, but if He has set you this task, it shall be worthwhile indeed.” He glanced uneasily at Tyne, who still stared blankly and whose mouth moved in unuttered curses, he shook his head sadly and then continued, “we had best make your brother as comfortable as we can. His lot is far more pitiable than your own, but not beyond our Master’s ability to redeem, if only he will let Him.” Bayard shook his head sadly at the miniscule possibility of that ever being the case, but leapt to his brother’s aid, smiling in spite of himself to have already discovered one friend within this forsaken place. He marveled at the thought, for he had never had a friend in his entire life, and smiled all the more. Thankfully Tyne was oblivious to all but his own problems, so Bayard’s renewed mirth could not further dampen his spirits. They put the unresisting boy to bed, still murmuring incoherently to himself, and then withdrew to the far side of the room where a fire blazed upon the hearth.

They drew up a pair of ancient chairs as Bren asked of the lad, “so you have come at our Master’s behest?” The lad nodded eagerly and the man nodded grimly, continuing, “I wonder what this portends? Are we to see the end of his Lordship’s rule and that horrid Beast as well?” Bayard shuddered involuntarily at mention of the Dragon. The man said quietly, “right you are to be afraid lad, it is a dreadful thing to lay eyes upon the Monster. But in his own way, his Lordship is far worse. Do you know aught of him?” The boy shook his head and the man continued, “aye, he’s a wizard, a warlock most vile. He has reigned for five hundred years uncontested and uses the Beast to maintain his rule. The Rider is merely a man and is replaced every twenty years or so, when the former model wears out or is betrayed. There’s blood magic in the mix, there is no other way his Lordship could live so long or maintain control of such a beast.”

Bayard asked with wide-eyes, “what will come of my brother, and of myself?”

Bren glanced uneasily into the fire and then met the lad’s worried frown, “if your brother is as he claims, a true son of the Rider, and can prove it, he will be given a black tabard and admitted into the keeping of the castle guards for training in the warrior arts. One day he will join the guard or perhaps become a Knight, or he may even replace the Rider himself.” He paused and looked sadly at the boy, “you will undoubtedly be given a brown tabard and given into the care of the Steward. You will serve as a menial, drudge, or scullion with no hope of rising higher than a mere page, but few who wear the Brown remain in residence long enough to achieve even that. They tend to vanish within a year or two of their admittance into such service. I fear his Lordship makes a more sinister use of such lads than mere drudgery.” Bayard shuddered again and the man was silent in grim contemplation.

Bren shook his head and continued, “but if our Master has called you here lad, there is certainly a reason for it.” He studied the boy and frowned, “you have seen the Stone.” It was not a question.

The boy blinked in confusion, said he, “have not all who call upon the Name?”

The man laughed heartily, “nay lad, few are bold enough or free enough to make that journey. I have never been farther than a day’s walk from this place; I serve even as my father and grandfather before me, though I leave no son to follow after me. Any who wish may cry out for our Lord’s mercy and receive it, but a very few feel called to journey afar and seek something far greater than any mortal mind can comprehend. What is it you have found lad? There are rumors, legends, myths, but I have never heard the truth of the matter.”

The boy grinned ruefully, “I was hoping you could tell me. I hardly know what it is I have done, but eagerly do I await the full revelation.” Said he more seriously, “how does his Lordship look upon such matters, it cannot be kindly? Are there others of our persuasion in this forsaken place?”

The man smiled broadly, “aye lad, right on both counts. His Lordship need not know everything that passes in a man’s heart and mind, and if he should find out about our little secret, well it won’t be just the brown clad scullions that mysteriously disappear. There are a few of us about, but we are a cautious lot, as you might imagine.”

The boy frowned, “how is it you felt inclined to reveal yourself to me? How can you serve such a tyrant?”

The man smiled to himself at the lad’s revelation of his naiveté, “we each must serve where we are called lad; the world would be a terrible place indeed if we only aided righteous men. We have the privilege to shine the light into the otherwise impenetrable darkness of this place, for our Master calls all men to Himself, not just the good and the true. How will they know if they do not hear? As to why I trusted you from the first? That I do not know, it just felt right. Perhaps it is because you have seen the Stone and our Master’s hand is firmly upon you, thus do I find myself inexplicably trusting you from the very moment you entered my door? Who knows, but it is no coincidence.”

The boy pondered this for a long moment, frowned in consternation, and asked, “you mentioned something about the end of the Beast and his Lordship’s reign?”

The man nodded, “it is one of those legends I spoke of, or perhaps it is a mere rumor or even true Prophecy, who am I to say? But it is said that when his Lordship came to power, after a long and brutal war, a prophet arose from amongst the people and denounced his bloody assumption of the throne. It is said the vociferous man was seized at his Lordship’s behest and was never seen again among living men, but before his disappearance, he uttered these words, “your undoing will come in a guise you least expect. From among the humblest shall he come, yet he has seen wonders of which the greatest cannot boast. Love will overthrow all that hate and greed have wrought; it shall quench the very fire of the Beast.” Of course at that time, there was as yet no Monster, so if the words were faithfully recorded, at least that much of the prophecy has come true. The Dragon eventually came and one day let us hope it shall be no more, perhaps soon.”

The boy grinned in spite of himself, it all sounded so grand and epic, and certainly a thing far beyond his meager capabilities, but what did that matter to One who sent stars hurtling from their courses with a mere thought? Vague as it was, it could mean anyone or anything, but if he was to be part of it, why not? There had been far stranger heroes in the history of the world and far greater tales. He would do whatever was asked of him and watch eagerly as the full tale unfolded. They talked a bit more of things less epic and then retired, knowing morning could not be far off. And in this they were quite correct, for only a few hours later there came a great pounding upon the door of the humble cot, which jolted them all awake.

The banging continued and then the door flew open just as the gatekeeper was about to open it; Bren was flung against the wall by the force of the suddenly opening door. He lay stunned for a moment, but hastily gained his feet and bowed respectfully to the primly dressed man and two guards who entered his miniscule abode. It was quite crowded but no one dared complain. At least Tyne seemed coherent this morning, if a bit subdued and sulky. The stranger said snidely, “which of you pathetic creatures dares command my attention?” The lads exchanged an uneasy look and the man snarled, “which of you lays claim to the Rider as his sire?”

Tyne trembled visibly and said in a forced whisper, “I do.”

The man nodded curtly and said, “then present your proof.”

The boy dashed to his satchel, rummaged around with shaking hands, and produced a roll of parchment. He handed the scroll to the esteemed and grumpy personage and waited with bated breath as he unrolled it and eyed it skeptically. He shrugged his shoulders dismissively, carelessly tossed Tyne’s most treasured possession vaguely in the direction of its owner, and then said with a sneer, “very well. My myrmidons shall see to you. What of this other one?”

Tyne managed a slight sneer, “a fatherless wretch, sir, and nothing more. A mere servant in my mother’s service, sent forth to aid my journey, though he was of little enough use thereon. Do with him as you wish, sir.”

The Steward studied Bayard for a long, thoughtful moment and then nodded succinctly, “his Lordship can always use another drudge; he shall be clad in Brown.” He glanced at the shaky Bren, whose interlude with the door had not been appreciated by his aging bones. Said he thoughtfully, “gatekeeper, you have no one to replace you though you are failing quickly with age?” The man nodded, but made no reply to or defense against this inaccurate statement, for one did not gainsay the Steward, but getting on in years as he was, he was not exactly frail or looking into his grave. Continued the Steward, “I will give you the lone of this wretch until I have need of him elsewhere, perhaps he can be of use to you. At least you can keep him out of mischief.” He turned on his heel and vanished as quickly as he had come; the soldiers gathered up Tyne in their wake and forced him from the cottage, leaving Bren and Bayard to gape at one another.

The old man smiled warmly, “well met lad, well met indeed! At least for a little while we can keep pleasant company together, even if I am failing.” They shared a merry laugh at this obvious falsehood and then they got down to the very serious business of breakfast, over which the man explained much about life in the castle and of his new role therein. As they were finishing up the dishes, a timid knock came at the door. The pair exchanged a curious glance, wondering who would knock with so little vim in this dreadful place. Bren opened the door and admitted a boy clad in Brown. He made the proper courtesies and then presented the reason for his visit, holding another brown tabard out to the old man. The man thanked him and then asked if the lad might not spare a moment or two.

The boy gaped, never imagining that so lowly a creature as himself might be invited to tea by so auspicious a man as the gatekeeper! Certainly he must stay if it would please the man. So it was that Kipril was drawn into their conspiracy. He gazed with wide eyes upon both the newest menial in the castle and his host. The latter he held in sheer awe because the man held a position so far above that of the Brown clad boy that he might as well be King, for all it mattered to the boy. Bayard was another case entirely, said Kipril with eyes so wide Bren feared they might fall from their sockets, “you have seen the Stone!” He sighed in wonder and longing, “such is my greatest desire, but who am I to look upon it or even attempt the journey?”

Bayard barked a laugh, “who indeed? For am I not the son of a renowned sire, the apple of my mother’s eye, and the envy of my half-brother, a very son of the Rider?” The old man laughed heartily at this and the boy gasped, unsure whether the other lad was in jest or serious. Bayard smiled wryly at the boy, “I am naught but a fatherless wretch and a disgrace to all my relations, not that any have bothered to lay claim to me. If I can venture thither, anyone can.”

Kipril said quietly, “but do I dare leave the succor of his Lordship, meager as it is?”

Bren said grimly, “better to die upon the road than at the hands of your master.”

The boy shuddered and said quietly, “true indeed, yet my heart holds me here for the moment. I would fain be off this minute, but yet have I something to accomplish here. Perhaps afterwards I shall have my chance.” He turned bright eyes upon Bayard, “upon what great quest do you now find yourself?”

Bayard smiled slightly and shook his head, “your guess is as good as mine, but I am here at our Master’s behest and eagerly do I await His direction.”

Kipril leapt to his feet, “I beg your pardon sirs, but I must hasten back to my place ere the Steward finds me tardy.” They both bid him a fond farewell as he dashed out the door, nervous as a kitten amid a throng of strange cats. Bayard took up the discarded brown garment and studied it with distaste, but knew he had no choice. He put it on and shared a grim look with Bren, but there was nothing else to be done.

 

The Rider stood at the window of the highest tower in the castle, watching what might have been ants scurrying about their business in the courtyard below, but his attention was inwardly focused and he saw little of and cared less for the pathetic insects below. At his elbow the Steward stood silently, wondering if he dared speak, it would be treason but if he could gain a place in the Rider’s confidence, perhaps he could benefit when and if the Rider overthrew his Lordship. Finally the Rider growled, annoyed at the man’s continued presence, “what is it Fenwick?”

The Steward shuddered at the coldness in the man’s voice but said as confidently as he could, “another of your sons arrived last night my lord.”

“What is that to me?” snarled the preoccupied Rider.

The Steward forged on tremulously, “do you know how his Lordship maintains his eternal youth and wards off death? How the Dragon was birthed at the first?”

The Rider gazed stonily at the unfortunate Steward, who trembled under those nearly reptilian eyes, said he harshly, “of course I do you fool! Even the thickest of the scullions knows the fiend uses blood magic. What has any of this to do with me?”

“Simple,” said the Steward, “your only hope of maintaining your position or rising above it is to do the same.”

The Rider gaped in astonishment and then frowned thoughtfully, “I begin to see your point. I am not yet so frail that one of my wretched offspring can hope to supplant me, but that day will not be long in coming and then it will be my blood that binds him to the Dragon. But what if it was their blood first?” He laughed darkly, “an excellent point indeed Steward, I shall remember this one day and you will not be sorry, though perhaps our esteemed master will be. I will carefully consider this interesting alternative, it is certainly rife with possibilities.”

 

The days passed quietly, too quietly Bayard thought, as he attended to his duties and realized how anticlimactic the end of his journey truly was. The gatekeeper laughed at his youthful impatience and said, “don’t be too eager for excitement lad, it is nowhere near so appealing as the stories hold it to be, and it will fall upon you when you least expect it or want it.” His gaze focused on a man riding up to the outer gate of the castle, of which he was keeper, and he said in surprise, “and here may be just the circumstance you have anticipated.”

The man dismounted and led his horse through the open gate and stopped politely outside the gatekeeper’s door, though he could have easily ridden straight for the castle’s inner gate and the more important warders thereof. Said he, as the old man and the boy came out to attend him, “I was bidden to this place by my Master and thought to first inquire of you as to happenings herein.”

Bren nodded solemnly and said, “come in sir, and we can discuss matters over tea. See to the man’s horse lad.” Bayard bowed smartly, took the reins of the impressive beast, and led him quickly away to the stables. He was uneager to leave the intriguing stranger, but knew the sooner he had the beast settled the sooner he could return.

The man watched with amused interest as the horse was borne away and then turned to his host, “gladly will I take some refreshment with you, my good man.”

They entered the house and soon the boy returned from his task and joined them. The man covertly studied the lad, as the boy puttered about with the tea things, smiling knowingly. Bren watched the man with interest, feeling a kinship to this man even as he had been drawn to the boy from the very first. Once they were all settled, the gatekeeper asked, “what exactly would you know, my lord?”

The man shook his head ruefully and said, “I am just a man like yourself, sir, do not be so formal. Tell me what you can of this place, its master, and those herein.” His smile deepened, “and of yourself and the boy as well.”

There was not much to tell but Bren told it in full, the man nodding in appreciation as each fact was revealed. At last he said, “I must attempt to enter the keep but it shall not go well with me.” He looked keenly at the boy, “what ever betide lad, do not despair, for no matter how impossible it might seem, I shall return for you.” The boy frowned at him in incomprehension, but before he could voice his consternation, the man stood, thanked them for their hospitality, and was out the door and striding boldly for the gate.

The pair exchanged a perplexed look, rose as one, and hastened to the door to see what would come of the interview. The man approached the gate guards and asked after an audience with his Lordship. They laughed him to scorn but he insisted. One of the thugs took offense and grabbed a fistful of the man’s tunic, tearing the travel worn fabric. There came a collective gasp from the gathered guards at whatever the rent shirt revealed, though the horrified pair could not see it; the entire contingent of guards set upon the man and soon had him bound securely. All but two of them then marched him into the castle proper and sent a page running, that the Steward might be summoned to sit in judgment. Bren eyed the boy significantly and he nodded in understanding. Bayard dashed off behind the stable, climbed up on a stack of forgotten crates, and peered over the wall.

The Steward was quite put out to be so summoned, but considering the severity of the matter, it was either that or disturb his Lordship, which was unthinkable. They presented the prisoner before him, and Bayard could now discern what it was that had upset them so; a small unicorn reared upon the man’s chest, just over his heart; it was wrought in silver ink that seemed to flash with a light of its own. The Steward shook his head grimly and said, “there can be but one doom for such a traitor. Stake him out for the Beast. He shall die by fire.”

“Wait!” protested the condemned, “I was bidden to pass a word of warning on to your fell master.” One of the guards cuffed him roughly upside the head for his insolence, but he pressed on as they began to shove him from the courtyard, “the words spoken at the inception of his vile rule will soon be fulfilled, let him look to the fate of his own soul while there is still time.” They cuffed him again, this time far less gently, and he slumped senseless in their ungentle arms. Bayard stifled his gasp of horror and watched them drag the unconscious man from the keep. He descended from his perch and dashed silently after. The gatekeeper joined him and together they followed the soldiers out of the castle, across the road, and stood on the edge of the barren field that covered the far side of the highway. Most of the castle’s occupants joined them there in anticipation of what was to come. Bayard shuddered, but whether in horror at the bloodthirstiness of his companions or at the man’s prescribed doom, he was unsure.

Once perhaps, long ago, something had grown upon that stony waste, but now it held nothing but blackened rock as far as the eye could see. Bayard had once questioned the gatekeeper about it, his answer had chilled his blood, and now he would see its intended use for himself. Then he remembered the man’s strange parting words and his horror was replaced by a fitful hope and a far greater perplexity. He glanced at his left hand neighbor and smiled to see that it was Kipril.

The boy gave him a wan grin in return, uneasy about what was to come, whispered he, “this will be your first time watching such an execution?” Bayard nodded and the boy continued, “have you yet seen the Beast?” He shook his head and Kipril shuddered, “then prepare to be terrified.” He glanced at the sky and said in dread, “here it comes!”

All eyes were drawn inexorably to the Beast, whether they would or not. The soldiers finished securing the prisoner to a great boulder in the midst of the waste, chaining him hand and foot to the great stone, and then they fled back to the relative safety of the trembling crowd. The man was just starting to rouse when he heard the roar of the Monster and felt the backdraft of its wings; he looked up in dismay as the Creature hovered overhead in patient study before making a wide circle back to its quarry. Upon its great back perched the miniscule form of the Rider, exultant in his role as executioner. He motioned and the hideous beast spouted flame upon the helpless man chained to the great stone.

The gathered company turned their faces away from the inferno and coughed at the acrid smoke, their eyes watering in the reek. When they could look again, the Beast was gone and nothing remained but blackened stone, that would be too hot to touch for days to come. Bayard’s eyes were wet with tears but not from the noxious fumes. The old man put a comforting hand on his shoulder and guided him gently back to the gatehouse to mourn their loss; Kipril ghosted silently after.

 

The Steward stood with his arms crossed as the silent throng returned, glowering at each and every one of them as they slunk back to their duties; they cringed in terror as they felt his chagrin and hastened back to their places. He hated the ordeal of such a spectacle and the inefficiency it caused amongst the staff, but there was no better way to keep order in his master’s household than with a little demonstration now and then. At last his eyes fell upon Kipril and he snarled, “what are you doing fool? His Lordship has been kept waiting this half hour and you will feel his wrath. Attend me this moment!”

The boy shivered anew, knowing what such a summons must mean, but Bayard leapt between the two and pled, “must it be him, sir?”

The man stared at the boy, as if he had never seen a mortal man before. Bren looked on from the thinning crowd of returning menials, his eyes wide with horror. What was the lad doing? The Steward was speechless, a phenomenon rarely observed in a man whose very tongue was a lash, at last he grated, “what do you mean?”

Bayard drew himself up, “must it be this servant in particular, sir, or will any of us clad in Brown suffice?”

The man gaped openly and Bayard caught Tyne’s gloating gaze for a moment, before the Steward said at last, “it does not matter which one, this creature was convenient but you shall suffice as well.” He scowled at the irksome boy, “for your impudence, you may take his place and we shall soon be well rid of you!” Tyne was nearly glowing with amusement, his joy would have been complete had his annoying brother trembled in terror, but alas he was to be sorely disappointed. The boy merely nodded in acceptance and fell in behind the Steward as he withdrew into the castle. Kipril and Bren stared after in grief and wonder, what was Bayard up to? Bren laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder and guided him into the gatehouse, away from prying eyes.

But Kipril resisted his well-intentioned efforts, and said with a sad smile, “I am free at last. My duty, whatever it was, has been accomplished and now I may seek the Stone.”

Bren gaped, “now?!”

Kipril nodded eagerly but sadness tinged his voice, “I am loath to leave you so suddenly alone, sir, but I feel I must be on my way this very moment.”

The old man nodded, smiled sadly, and said, “very well lad, you must do as you must. This is not the first grief I have borne nor shall it be the last. Fare thee well!” Kipril bowed deeply, smiled impishly, joyously flung aside his Brown, and fled like a bird from its cage. None but the thoughtful old man watched him go or cared that he had.

 

The Steward led Bayard deep into the castle’s bowels, even lower than the dungeons, wherein rats and fungus flourished; this was a place even rats dared not go. Bayard felt the evil of this place to his very soul, as if a malicious fog engulfed the lowest reaches of the castle. They had passed through so many dark and twisting corridors that Bayard was utterly lost, but the Steward seemed confident in his steps. Eventually they stood before an unremarkable door of rotting wood on which the Steward timidly knocked. A voice sounded from within, though the words were muffled to incoherence by the thick oaken door. The Steward entered, bowed deeply, and then drew the shrinking boy in behind him.

A man, cowled all in black, and of rather insignificant height, studied the pair for a moment, and then barked, “he will suffice. Send your menials down at the usual hour to dispose of the remnants.” The Steward bowed again and hastened out with a quavered, “as you wish it Sire,” and then slammed the door behind him with an ominous thud.

The sorcerer’s gaze felt like icy fingers running over Bayard’s skin and he flinched back from this vile worker of unspeakable evil. The man studied him for a very long time and then barked, “bare your chest boy.” Bayard frowned at this strange order but immediately complied, his skin prickling in the cold dankness of the subterranean chamber. The warlock smiled, a hideous permutation of a usually pleasant expression, and then said, “most excellent, indeed. We shall see what comes of our would-be Prophet, shall we? Well, I will, in a moment you won’t be troubled by such things, or anything else, for that matter.” The man laughed like Death itself.

 

Two brawny figures, clad in rough woolens, carried a bulky bundle between them as they surreptitiously exited a small side gate in the castle’s outer wall. They stumbled along the rutted path in the darkness and then dropped their burden upon the dung heap located about a bowshot from the castle. They each took up a shovel and buried the carcass, lest its stench cause undue annoyance to his Lordship; once the corpse was completely buried, they hastened back to the castle and their waiting duties. Even here, the acrid Dragon smoke had drifted in, mingling with the evening mist and making it very unpleasant for anyone to linger long, let alone breath. Once the furtive menials had fled back to the keep, a light began to pulse like a beating heart in the midst of the noxious fog. The light continued to throb as it began to widen and elongate, until it took on the form of a man.

The light subsided but a shadowy figure remained, still draped in the smoky mist. He coughed as he inhaled a damp, acrid lungful of the noxious concoction but approached the dung heap as one on a mission, for so he was. He moved through the night with the ease of a cat and found the place where his quarry lay. He pushed aside the rotting manure, revealing the head and chest of a quickly stiffening boy with blankly staring eyes; his throat had been cut and he was pallid from exsanguination, so pale he seemed to glow in the wan light of the moon. The mysterious man shook his head grimly, the foul sorcerer had left nary a drop in the boy’s veins; a slow smile spread unseen across the man’s countenance as he contemplated just what that meant: the Prophecy would at last find fulfillment. Now for the Beast. But first, he had to attend to the boy.

He placed a firm hand upon the murdered lad’s chest and it began to glow with a faint azure light. An answering glow began to pulse over the boy’s heart; the cold organ answered with its own steady beat. Bayard gasped back to life and blinked in surprise and horror as blood started to pour from the wound in his neck. The stranger hissed in surprise at his oversight and hastily raised his radiant hand to the gushing wound, which glowed in response and immediately sealed itself over with healthy skin. Bayard raised a tentative hand to his throat and gasped in wonder. He gaped in disbelief when he recognized the man that loomed over him as the same intrepid fellow whom the Dragon’s flames had reduced to a smoldering stain upon a certain boulder that very afternoon. Garren smiled amusedly at the overwrought boy and said, “welcome back lad, I am sure you have questions.”

The boy nodded silently, his eyes wide, but was unable to sit up with half the dung heap still sitting atop his prone form. Garren soon had him dug out and helped him to his feet, and as he began brushing the clinging straw and debris from his person, he finally noticed the mark where Garren’s hand had been. He traced it with his fingers in disbelief, unsure of anything on this night of wonder and horror. Garren smiled warmly but let the boy ponder all that had happened, waiting for him to ask after all that mystified him. At last Bayard raised his eyes and met Garren’s gaze, glancing significantly at the man’s chest from time to time where an identical silver unicorn stood rampant. Garren laughed heartily, motioned that they should walk together, and allowed the boy to ask or keep silent as he would. At last he gasped out, “what is all this? I saw you die! What are you? What happened to me? Am I dead too?” He touched the mark reflexively, “what does this signify?”

Garren smiled knowingly, remembering his own confusion many long years ago, said he, “good questions all. That mark signifies Whose you are and the commitment you have made in His service. Technically you died the day you willingly laid your neck upon the Stone and accepted His blood on your behalf, at least you died to yourself and all you once were, though physically it does not manifest itself until First Death, which is that from which you have just wakened. We are still men lad, still clad in flesh and bone, whatever our strange proclivities. You watched me die today as I have done countless times in our Master’s service, though Death can never truly keep us captive, for we always waken again to life anew and continue in the tasks our Master sets us.”

Bayard stopped as the man revealed his secrets, listening in wonder and stunned disbelief. Garren smiled at his astonishment and knew it was too much to take in all at once. The boy whispered, “strange proclivities?”

The man nodded, “aye lad, we are well equipped to handle any quest our Master might set before us. Have you noticed how well you can find your way in the dark? That is but one of our many skills.” The boy glanced about and only then realized it was pitch dark, for the moon had set and a veil of cloud obscured the stars. Garren smiled in amusement at his continued wonder, remembering his own initial astonishment.

The boy whispered faintly, “He did say it would get stranger as my mission progressed.” He frowned, “what if I find this too strange and disconcerting?”

Garren nodded in understanding, “go back to the Stone and vanish beyond Time and Mortality if you wish.”

The boy nodded dully but did not seem eager to abandon his new occupation quite yet. Suddenly a knowing smile crossed his face and he said with growing eagerness, “how long exactly have you been doing this? This isn’t your first time delivering a message to his Lordship, is it?”

Garren clapped the boy on the back exuberantly and barked a laugh, “that’s it lad, I believe you are starting to understand.” He smiled impishly in remembrance and said, “nay lad, my own quest began immediately after I delivered a certain Prophecy to a newly crowned usurper, approximately five hundred years ago.” He fingered his neck in remembrance, “he felt it high time my head was emancipated from the rest of me.” He smiled eagerly, “but now we get to watch as our Master’s warnings come to fruition.”

Bayard frowned, “what do you mean? How can we overcome such a fiend?”

Garren smiled grimly, “we cannot, but our Master can. The fell wizard maintains his Monster, his life, and his rule through the use of blood magic, which is strictly forbidden, especially to mortal men. He imbibes the blood of young men to maintain his facade of immortal youth; to him it is the very wine of life.” Here his voice grew ironic, “but the very blood with which he intends to prolong his life will ultimately spell his doom. His foul necromancy is incompatible with the blood of our Master’s servants, at least those who have laid everything upon the Stone and taken His blood upon themselves. It is veritable poison to one such as he, especially when you stepped in to spare your friend. Such evil cannot endure in the presence of Love.”

The boy nodded in understanding, “that is why he demanded I bare my chest.” He smiled ironically, “he will be more surprised than I at the outcome of this night!”

Garren said grimly, “his Lordship may well be out of the way, but there is still the matter of the Beast and its Rider. No doubt the current Rider will usurp the place of his former master and raise up a new Rider from amongst his numerous offspring. We must unmake the Creature or all is for naught. We shall simply have replaced one fiend with another. As long as the Monster endures, so too shall this terrible Kingdom.” Bayard shivered, remembering all the tales told of whole villages and rebellious armies consumed utterly by the flames for defying his Lordship. None dared stand against him, so terrible were the tales!

He said in dismay, “how is the Beast to be overcome? Perhaps you can survive its flames in one way or another but how do we unmake the Dragon?”

Garren said stonily, “in the same way it was made. It is not a thing of this mortal earth. It has no mind of its own, but rather needs the Rider to direct its every move and decision. Shortly after the Usurper came to power, he made the Beast to assure his rule. He convinced six of his best and vilest warriors to compete for his favor, the losers agreeing to forfeit their lives to create the Dragon; the victor went on to become the first Rider. Each succeeding Rider must make a blood offering to transfer control of the Beast to himself, often using the blood of the former Rider or one of his sons. So if the current Rider ascends the throne, one of his sons may well sacrifice another to take his place.”

Bayard shivered, a grim future indeed if they could not destroy the Dragon. Garren continued quietly, “there is but one way to unmake the Beast and that is in the same way it was made.” Bayard met his solemn gaze with a look of horror. “Yes,” said Garren in a barely audible whisper, “five men must go willingly to their deaths, if the price is to be met.” Bayard smiled grimly and the man seemed to read his thoughts, “yes lad, our blood will suffice, but we must find three more if this mad scheme is to succeed, and soon, if a succession is to be avoided.”

They had wended their way back to the outer gate of the castle, which was closed for the night, but a candle burned defiantly in the gatekeeper’s window. The pair exchanged an eager look and Garren called quietly at the window, “ho there! Is anyone still awake?”

A hand took up the candle and the door was flung wide as Bren peered blindly into the night. “Who goes?” queried he in a voice rough with grief and weariness.

Bayard’s smile ought to have split his face in two, but he cried in quiet joy, “I hear tell that you are looking for a new page. Perhaps I might suffice?”

The man gasped upon recognizing the voice and quickly opened the smaller gate beside the main entrance, through which a single man might pass. The pair ghosted into the outer courtyard of the castle and the gate clanged shut behind them. The man studied the pair in the light of his candle; he blanched so much in surprise and terror that he might well have been a ghost himself. He shook himself and ushered them into his unassuming abode. He studied them quietly once the door was safely shut and the shades were drawn. They were certainly the men he had thought them to be, but how they came to appear among the living was more than he could say.

Garren smiled pitiably at his conundrum and hastily drew out a chair for the stymied man while Bayard went to brew some tea, that it might revive the man from this overt shock. A few minutes later the man was glancing back and forth between them and taking careful sips of the rejuvenating liquid; he was actually smiling, for he had received back his dead and they were certainly not ghosts. He felt the steady throb of their hearts and the warmth of their hands and smiles, and knew these were no undead fiends or wandering spirits. They would not say how it was they had survived or conquered death, but he was content to have them back and was wise enough not to ask too many awkward questions.

Said Bren at last, “so what is to come of all this? Shall the Prophecy be fulfilled at last?”

Garren nodded eagerly, “it has already begun. His Lordship has sealed his own doom this night in his poor choice of victim for his latest blood rites.” His voice grew grave, “yet the Beast remains.”

Bren nodded, “by blood it was made and only by blood can it be unmade.” He smiled grimly, “count me in gentlemen, but will we suffice?”

Garren shook his head, “nay sir, we need two more.”

Bren said thoughtfully, “there is an old soldier, a beggar and outcast, formerly of his Lordship’s guard, but cast aside when he was crippled in his Lordship’s service. He is still a man of duty and has lately come into our Master’s keeping. Perhaps he would find such a duty to his liking. I shall ask him immediately and bring him back here if he is amenable, meanwhile you two try to think of someone, anyone who might act as the fifth.” He gave them an ecstatic grin and then vanished into the dull grey light of predawn. As he opened the smaller gate, there came a gasp of pure wonder and they heard him say eagerly, “get inside lad, get inside! I must be off at once but I shall return shortly.” The gate banged shut and Kipril entered the cottage, agape to see who waited within.

Bayard and Garren exchanged a knowing look and then quickly greeted the boy. Bayard said excitedly, “you have seen the Stone!” Kipril nodded, too overwhelmed and happy to speak.

He shook his head, trying to comprehend that it was indeed the same night he had left and that his friends were truly alive. At last he said, “can this day get any stranger?”

Garren grinned, “that it can lad, that it can. You are just the man we’ve been waiting for.” Kipril didn’t understand, but his heart gave an eager thump and his smile was answer enough.

Bren returned, as the sun peeked over the far hills, with a limping soldier in tow. As the door closed behind the ragged man, Bren said grimly, “we have our army, now how do we march to war?” All eyes turned to Garren, who smiled in anticipation, but before he could answer, there arose an outcry from the castle. It was Bren’s turn to smile grimly, “his Lordship is dead. It has begun.”

“Come,” said Garren, “we have little time. Let us to the Beast!” They stared at him in horror, but knew he had the right of it.

They draped themselves in the rough woolens of the castle’s heavy laborers and cast cloaks about themselves, to conceal the identity of those who should not be able to wander about of their own accord. Entering the castle by the same gate the drudges had used the previous night to dispose of his Lordship’s latest victim, they easily penetrated the castle proper and made their way uncontested into the lowest reaches of the dungeons. The air was heavy with the scent of death and dragon smoke and grew more so as they approached the Creature’s lair. Initially they heard sounds of conflict and the clashing of weapons above, but no one bothered with a company of menials about some task in the bowels of the keep when the crown was being contested.

The Dragon slept whenever the Rider was not present to give it direction and thought. It laired beneath the castle, coming and going through a great tunnel dug specifically for that purpose. Men could access the cavern via the dungeons if they wished to avoid the bulk of the Monster itself, which any rational creature would. They could hardly breath in the fumes from the Beast, but at last they stood facing the insensible monstrosity. Bren asked, “now what? We are here but the Beast might as well be a log for all the volition it has without the Rider.”

Came a laughing sneer, “oh, I think not! And here I thought I would have to drag someone down here somehow when you have so thoughtfully volunteered.” Tyne stepped out of the shadows cast by a few, scattered torches and smiled as if he had just conquered the world. Continued he, “while the others fight for the crown, I shall assume the Ridership and then take the crown at my leisure, but first I need blood. On your knees, all of you!”

The small company exchanged grim looks, shrugged, and did as they were bidden. Each had silently wondered how they would meet their end, and at last it seemed they had an answer. Tyne cast back their hoods and confiscated any weapons in their keeping, starting in surprise to discover both Garren and Bayard among his captives. His smile deepened, “my, my, this is a bit of fortune unlooked for! I will not only get to kill the insolent stranger but also my pesky brother when I had thought someone else had already had that pleasure.” He circled his captives, thoughtfully scratching his chin, said he, “in theory I only need the blood of one, but I need neither witnesses nor prisoners. Shedding a little extra can not hurt in the least.” He grinned villainously and drew his sword, “besides, I will enjoy it immensely, what other reason do I need?”

They neither struggled nor protested but fell as sheep to the slaughter, one after the other hewn down in their turn. Bren was the last to feel the sword pierce his heart, as he fell gasping and felt his life slipping away, a satisfied smile touched his lips that he could be of such service to his Master and his fellow men. The blood price met, Tyne turned eager eyes upon the Beast, waiting for some stirring of awareness or acknowledgement, but as the final victim shuddered and lay still, the Dragon gave a hideous roar and was engulfed by black flames that consumed the very rock upon which the castle’s foundations stood. The entire structure collapsed in on itself, forever ending the argument over who would be next to reign, for none survived to contest the question.

Amid the smoke and settling dust, two lights throbbed in the darkness and soon resolved themselves into two misty, luminescent man shapes. They searched the debris and found the remains of a boy, charred beyond recognition. The younger looked to the elder, who shook his head minutely and the boy nodded. What they intended could not be accomplished in this tomb without trapping their friend within, so each took hold of the scorched youth, fading into mist and moonlight with their deceased burden, and vanishing from that place of darkness and death. The gatekeeper and the old soldier were permanently interred therein, though their spirits were fled and even now, looked upon an eternal morning with joy unfathomable.

 

The moon was high and only a few bold stars dared look on as the pair reappeared in the waking world, again garbed in mortal flesh. They lay down their burden and Garren nodded his encouragement. Bayard gave him a nervous smile, but touched his dead friend with a glowing hand, unsure exactly what part of the former servant he was touching and hoping it would suffice. The unrecognizable lump suddenly glowed with an azure light and knit itself into some semblance of a man. The boy blinked his suddenly restored eyes and smiled awkwardly at his companions, who laughed for very joy as they helped him to his feet. The lad glanced about and smiled up at the moon, said he, “so this is how you two managed to cheat death.” He sighed, “and our other companions?”

Garren smiled heartily, “in our Master’s keeping. We need not mourn my friend, for they could not be safer or happier. It is we who foolishly linger on in this forsaken world long past our time. But come, we have our Master’s business to be about.” He glanced glumly at the ruined castle and sighed, “and my horse was in the stable when it collapsed, a pity that.”

Bayard grinned, “I suppose you will just have to walk like the rest of us peasants.”

Garren nodded, “for the time being I suppose I must, but come lads, you have much to learn ere you are allowed to wander off alone.”

Kipril brightened significantly, “that is a relief, I hardly know what it is I have begun.”

Bayard laughed, “that makes two of us.”

Garren draped one arm encouragingly around each set of shoulders, “that is why I am here: to teach you to be proper Messengers.” He smiled ruefully, “even if I am unhorsed. Come lads, the night wastes.” The boys exchanged an eager glance and then followed happily after their new mentor.

 

The sun was on the rise by the time they reached Gormanth; it shone brightly on a land newly freed of unnatural terror, but none yet knew his Lordship and his Beast were gone or what would come of the realm with no apparent heir. The lads drew close to Garren as he led them into the heart of the bustling city, even this early in the morning the streets were thronged with people. It was a dirty, crowded, and sinister place and the neophyte Messengers were loath to spend any time at all within its confines. “Come lads,” said Garren cheerily, “the terrors of the mortal world should hold little sway over you now. Have you not faced death and emerged triumphant? What worse can befall a mortal man?”

Bayard smiled wryly, “it is not so much that I fear what may happen in such a dreadful place, but rather I am country bred and little used to so many people and buildings all atop one another!” Kipril nodded his agreement.

Garren laughed heartily, causing several passersby to look at him askance, for few were those who found anything humorous or delightful in a world ruled by his Lordship and haunted by the Dragon. He checked his mirth, not wanting to draw attention, and said quietly, “you’ll see far stranger things than a crowded city in the course of your service lads. I forget how overwhelming it all is, so long have I been in this service, but come, we must see the Captain.” The pair of neophytes exchanged a grim look and shivered in dread. Garren could not help but smile, “easy lads, he is no more dreadful than I. You have looked the Creator in the eye and lived to tell the tale, and He is far more awful than any mere man.” They appeared to relax marginally, but Garren knew that only getting the interview over with as quickly as possible would truly put their fears to rest.

In one of the more rundown of the outlying districts, they stopped before a three-story building that leant heavily upon its neighbor. The boys exchanged another of those grim glances and Garren shook his head with a smile on his face, saying, “appearances can be deceiving lads. It is time you started taking miracles for granted. You no longer exist in a world completely ruled by the laws of Time and Space. We are allowed to bend those rules and sometimes break them entirely. While the Captain resides within, he doesn’t exactly reside within. This building is one of many doorways into the Captain’s headquarters, but where exactly he is actually located, even I do not know. The boys looked rather flummoxed at this explanation but they had little choice but to trust Garren and hope they would eventually figure out the intricacies of their new occupation.

As Garren stepped into the doorway he vanished. The boys gaped but hastened after, colliding with the back of the man as he stood speaking quietly with a pair of guards. They gave the unseemly pair a stony look as Garren smiled knowingly, then asked, “is the Captain in?”

One of the guards, still eyeing the lads skeptically, said at last, “he is, but now may not be the best time to intrude upon him.”

Garren nodded, but there was a questioning look in his eyes at this peculiar statement, said he, “I would like to see him, if I may?”

The guards exchanged an unreadable look but then shrugged; it was not their place to deny admittance to anyone with a need to see the Captain. The man who had spoken held up his hand, now radiant with an azure light; Garren held up his own and touched it to the guard’s. His own palm glowed in response, the unicorn hidden beneath his tunic was alight, and even his eyes sparkled with it. Garren withdrew his hand and looked to the boys, said he, “you must do the same lads.” They looked at him blankly, he smiled, “just a precaution to keep servants of evil away from the Captain.” The boys nodded and each in turn touched their hand to that of the guard. Satisfied that they were not vile fiends in disguise, the guards stepped aside and allowed them to ascend the stairs. Garren did not like the grim looks that followed their retreat; something was far amiss, but what could it be? He knocked upon the door at the top of the stairs and opened it when a gruff voice called, “come!”

A grizzled man in his middle years sat behind a desk and glowered at the opening door, ready to excoriate whoever it was that was so bold or foolish as to disturb him at that particular moment. His reprimand died aborning as Garren entered, and for a moment a wan smile of remembered warmth touched his face, but it was quickly lost, as the man took in his Captain and astonishment shone in his eyes. Said the Captain gruffly, “what is it you want? I am too busy to be bothered with minor details.”

Garren, silent for a moment in shock, quickly overcame his amazement and said quietly, “just checking in Sir, and I thought you would like to meet our two newest recruits.”

The man eyed the terrified boys without interest, noting even they could feel that something was dreadfully amiss, and said in dismissal, “very good, you may go.”

But Garren did not move, said he, “Sir, the Prophecy has been fulfilled.”

The Captain scowled at his old friend’s continued presence and said, “which Prophecy? There are so many one can hardly keep track of them all!”

Garren replied, “his Lordship has been overthrown, the Beast unmade, and his entire castle has crumbled to dust.”

At least this jolted the Captain out of his grim introspection, said he in growing anticipation, “and none has claimed the crown?”

Garren shook his head, “nay Sir, all within the castle were killed when it collapsed and word has not yet spread even to the city.”

Garren flinched at the avaricious look that entered his Captain’s eyes, said he with a brittle laugh, “very good, we shall lay claim to it immediately.”

Garren gaped, “we, Sir?”

The Captain snarled, “well I, if you must be so precise. Who has a greater claim to it? Is it not our blood and toil that allows these mortal men to live on in oblivious peace? Who better to guide them into an era of peace and prosperity?”

Garren frowned and took a step towards the desk, “we are not allowed to interfere in the affairs of mortal men, sir. That includes ruling over them! What is wrong with you?”

The Captain scoffed a laugh, “wrong? Everything is wrong! We toil and die for these wretched men yet none knows it or cares. They live as they wish, take what they want, and do as it pleases them while we are bound by an unending list of rules and regulations. I am tired of it! I will take what I want and do as I please. Why must my pleasure be sacrificed for the sake of these unwitting sheep?”

Garren’s heart grew cold, hearing such words from the mouth of his own Captain, said he quietly, “because it is what our Master asks of those in this service and it is to this that you have agreed. It is time you stepped down, sir.”

The Captain was on his feet and bellowed, “step down! Are you daft? It was I that wakened you from death’s cold embrace, it was I that trained you, and this is how you repay me? This is your conception of loyalty?”

The guards thundered up the stairs and flung open the door, but did not enter as they watched the Captain berate his one time apprentice. Bayard and Kipril huddled in the corner, eyes wide. Garren said with quiet vehemence, “my loyalty is first and foremost to our Master, and in defying Him you cannot hope to lead His servants any longer. It is time you stepped down.”

The Captain laughed bitterly, “and who would replace me, you? Is that why you have come? Are you raising up your own followers to oust me?” He stared harshly at the boys and then hissed, “I do not need you and I certainly don’t need the one I once called Lord, nay, I need only myself! I will take the crown and the world shall tremble at my feet…” He trailed off with a hideous shriek, clutched his chest, and fell to his knees, weeping bitterly.

The guards rushed forward to aid their piteous Captain, but they were driven back as the window shattered, admitting darkness as it had once let in the light. A voice like Death laughed, “poor, poor wretch, do you see now the folly of your ways? How could you trust him at all or ever? Now look at you!”

The quivering men in the room, unable to discern any form or feature in this darkness made solid, looked in horror upon what had once been the Captain. The wretched man was now little more than a small, writhing wormlike creature wailing in despair. The darkness stooped like a bird and grasped the agonized wretch in what might have been a beak. Garren and the guards drew their swords, ready to leap to the former Captain’s rescue but the darkness laughed, freezing them where they stood. Bayard gaped in horror, for they had been turned to stone. He then felt those horrid eyes upon himself, as did Kipril; the voice sneered, “let us see your precious Master’s light heal them now! There can be no cure in what I have wrought and the same shall be your fate unless you bow before me this instant!”

Trembling in terror, the neophyte Messengers looked upon the stony faces of their comrades with dread, their faces forever frozen in looks of astonishment and fear, but more so did they look with pity upon the writhing creature yet clutched by the darkness. Bayard bowed his head in resignation and grief, and whispered, “I have but one Master and Lord and to Him alone will I bend the knee.”

Kipril cried, “be gone fiend, you have no part in us!”

The darkness laughed them to scorn and vanished out the shattered window with its prey, leaving five statues as its only witnesses. Outside, the sun resumed its shining and after a moment of uncanny silence, the birds resumed their singing, for the darkness had passed like a cloud over the sun and was no more. A dove fluttered to the sill of the shattered window and glanced about in placid curiosity, seemingly attracted to the statuary like iron filings to a magnet. It took wing and landed on the shoulder of the nearest stone figure, and like water freed from its icy captivity, Garren crumpled to his knees, flesh and blood once more. He stared at the fate of his companions in horror, but one by one, the dove lit on each and freed them from their stony repose. Bayard blinked in no little terror to awake to find a certain Bird perched atop his head. The others actually smiled at his discomfiture, but were secretly glad it was not they themselves that were thus perched upon.

The next moment, a great light engulfed them all and they found themselves standing in a pleasant wood in the late morning. Said the Unicorn that now stood in their midst, as each man went to one knee before Him, “I am in need of a new Captain.”

Garren felt His eyes upon his bowed head and shivered at the unspoken question. He raised his nervous gaze to that of his Master, who smiled in amused understanding at His conflicted servant. “Child,” said He as gentle as down floating on the wind, “I will not ask you to do something that is reprehensible to you. Your heart still yearns to be abroad in My service, rather than acting as counselor and guide to those under your command and to those who would seek Wisdom and Truth. Yet you would do whatever I ask without hesitation or question.” He laughed like softly falling rain, “fear not, I shall not ask it of you so you need not dread answering Me.” Garren visibly relaxed and He grinned all the more.

He turned His wondrous eyes upon the two kneeling guards, saying, “there is enough work to be done in the wide world that you will be of far more use to Me in the field rather than warding a door. Will you go?” They nearly glowed with joy as their eyes met His and immediately they vanished in a brilliant flash of light.

He turned to His remaining servants, “come, I will show you what I intend.” His voice was so full of joy and anticipation that they could hardly contain their curiosity, but they stood and followed after, silent in sheer awe. After a short walk they came to a quaint little cottage set back in the woods with a joyous brook singing along one side of a half wild garden, riotous with innumerable flowers. “Come!” cried He with the Voice that commands the sunrise. The door immediately opened and two men stepped blinking into the sunshine. The three Messengers felt their hearts leap for joy as they recognized the former gatekeeper and the once crippled soldier. Great was their joy in the meeting and their Master’s joy in theirs.

Once His children had satisfied their immediate excitement, He continued with every eye rapt upon His, “the former Captain was still a mortal man and hence able to turn away from Me, if that was his wish, which he proved at the last. Henceforth I shall set over my Messengers a man who cannot be corrupted, tempted, or otherwise drawn from My keeping, as he is already beyond such mortal shortcomings.” He turned laughing eyes upon Garren and continued, “he is also a man whose heart is content to advise, encourage, and guide all those who seek his counsel. I will also give him the aid and wisdom of another faithful heart, something every good leader requires.” He smiled upon them all, each felt his soul quiver in pure wonder, and then He was gone.

Bren, no longer a man in his failing years but vibrant as any youth, chivied them all inside that they might talk at leisure like civilized people. Guyare, the former cripple, skipped inside like a frisky colt. The Messengers exchanged a wondering look and followed after. Once they were all settled and sipping their requisite tea, Bren began, “you must tell us of your adventures since our parting.”

Garren told the full tale, which still horrified him to recollect, for the Captain had been a dear friend. Bayard shivered, “what happened to him? Can such be our fate?”

Garren shook his head sadly, “any man who denies the Master will one day find his soul consumed utterly by the darkness, but for those of us who have tasted His blood, shared in His death, and sworn ourselves to His service, it is a grim fate indeed. As we have been gifted, so too can we be cursed. If we forsake our Master and pursue our own whims, so too shall His power forsake us. We have crossed the threshold of death and only our Master’s power keeps it continually at bay, but should we recant, so too shall His protection be withdrawn and death will have its due. But it must be our conscious choice to do so, it cannot be forced upon us.”

Kipril frowned in consternation, “what did He mean when He said our new Captain shall be one beyond such corruption?”

Bren laughed, “He means me. You three still dabble in mortality and are thus corruptible, if you choose to be, as did the late Captain. As far as mortal thinking goes, I am dead and gone. I have seen that Far Shore and the Eternal Morning. Things of earth will never have a hold over me again, for I have witnessed things a mortal mind cannot even imagine. Hence I can guide and direct you more adventurous lads without fear that I will lead you astray, for I can do naught but our Master’s will. Guyare here is to serve as my aide, advisor, and messenger, as I have need.”

The old soldier smiled, “you’ll make a far better Captain than my former master.” He looked at his vibrant form and laughed, “and it will be a nice change never to grow old.”

Bayard asked Garren, “you seemed rather surprised when you first saw the Captain, was it just his changed attitude or was it something more? Do we age like normal men?”

Garren smiled proudly at the lad’s attentiveness to detail, said he, “I was overwrought by his changed demeanor no doubt, but I was also astonished at his apparent age. He should have been a man in his prime, the years do not touch us as they do other men, though we are yet clad in flesh. It was but another testimony to his change of heart; I should have realized it from the first, but I was blinded by my former regard and esteem and could not believe it of him.” There was an uncomfortable silence for some moments as they each thought upon the man’s grim fate, before the subject turned to lighter matters.

Bren stood and began retrieving teacups, the mortified boys jumped to their feet to help. He shooed the pesky youths away with a good-natured, “be gone ye ruffians, I am not such an old man any more that I cannot wash a few dishes, besides it is my house and you are my guests, so you have no right to touch the washing up without my leave.” He smiled, “let that be my first official order as Captain of this unruly lot.” Then he looked to Garren with questioning eyes, “what exactly do you lot require by way of sleep, food, and all of that?” He barked a rueful laugh, “I am now the fearless leader of this outfit but know nothing of those I command!”

Garren grinned, “I will be happy to apprise you of anything you wish, but my merry companions here are as clueless about their circumstances as our new captain.” He offered a smart salute and smiled broadly. Bren retreated to the kitchen, muttering about upstart young officers; the others followed after, exchanging amused glances.

It was rather crowded, but they all made themselves at home while Bren washed up, Garren began in answer, the newest Messengers listening keenly, “we are still counted as mortal men, though we are not allowed to interfere overly much in their affairs unless bidden to do so by our Master. We can neither marry, have children, reign over men, nor have a permanent home among them. Sleep and food are required, but we need far less than once we did. While we can die, as you have witnessed, it is no longer a permanent state.” He smiled knowingly at his nearly drooling apprentices, then continued, “we are also possessed of a few rather odd but quite useful skills. Our senses are keen, we can see like a cat in the dark, and our physical forms are stronger, faster, and more resilient than are a mortal man’s wont.”

He raised a hand and it began to glow blue with the now familiar light of their Master’s power, finished he, “but this is what truly sets us apart.”

Kipril asked with ill-contained wonder, “what can we do with it?”

Garren laughed and Bren shook his head ruefully at the boy’s exuberance. Said the former with a chuckle, “that you will learn soon enough lad. It has already restored you to form and function and assured our fellows that we are one of their own.”

Bayard frowned thoughtfully, “if it can heal us, can it not be used to help others likewise?”

Garren shook his head, “nay lad, that it cannot, unless it be our Master’s will to do so. I could no more have made Guyare run than fly. In peculiar cases your mission might require just such a feat and then it will be allowed, but in general, our healing abilities are confined to those who have seen the Stone.”

Kipril asked, “what exactly is the Stone? Why must we venture thither to enter this service? Why the illusions?”

Garren nodded, “I wonder that you have not already asked that, but things have been so exciting of late, I suppose you have had little time to ask and far too many other things to ask about. The Stone, as you might have guessed, was where our Master Himself was sacrificed for the sins of all mankind; it is still wet with His blood to this day. Once it was the heart of a mighty kingdom, but all that now remains is legend and that fateful Stone. He became a mortal Himself, walked among us for a time, and was put to death by those who were jealous of His power and influence, but Death could not hold Him and thereby has He conquered it and so may any who call upon His name.

Any may cry out for His forgiveness and redemption, but it takes a peculiar sort of man to abandon the common trappings of a mortal life to enter service with the Messengers. Many are called, most ignore it and go on with their lives, some venture thither only to balk at the last, and a very few actually join our ranks. The illusions are there to try each candidate’s heart, to know of a certainty that they will remain faithful, come what may. It will weed out any who might be prone to doing as our late captain has done, usually it has been quite successful, but we are still fickle and corruptible men despite all that. But you need not fear lads, as long as your hearts remain true.”

Bayard nodded eagerly, “how long shall we remain in your keeping?”

Garren shook his head, “that is not for me to decide, but usually for several years, until you have learned what you must and are confident enough to venture forth alone. It is a strange life, and takes some getting used to, but I can think of nothing more worthwhile.” He looked upon Bren and Guyare with an intrigued smile, “at least this side of eternity.” They smiled like cats, mysterious and too knowing.

Kipril queried, “when does our service end?”

Garren shook his head, “when you betray our Master, at the End of Time, or when you tire of it, return to the Stone, and forever abandon this mortal sphere.”

Bayard asked with a smile, “what is it we do besides die at the hands of vile wizards and power-hungry brothers?”

Garren shrugged, “our missions are many and varied. I have never had any two the same. We are usually sent to a certain person or place that is or will soon be under the influence of evil; we may try and prevent that evil or bring it to an end. Sometimes we are sent with a message to a particular person or group of people, hence our name.”

Kipril sighed, “I suppose it is one of those things, like our Master’s light, that we must learn by doing and one of the reasons for an apprenticeship?”

Garren smiled, “where is the fun in learning everything all at once? If life holds no mystery, it holds little interest. Is not half the fun of a gift the anticipation of getting it and wondering what it holds?” The boys exchanged a glum look, too young to fully comprehend his meaning and like little boys, wanting nothing more than to open all their presents at that exact moment. Their elders exchanged an amused grin behind their backs but said nothing more about, ‘kids!’

Bayard broke the silence and asked, “what of the realm? Who shall reign? Will there be a civil war?”

Garren shook his head, “countries and kings mean little to us now, outside our current assignment. You will see them rise and fall, if you serve long enough.” He said very quietly, “it is the same with mortal men. While we serve them with all we are, we cannot ever truly be accepted among them; we will never marry, have children, or even befriend them, for our duty will soon sunder us if Time itself does not. I have served five hundred years as a Messenger and the whole world has changed utterly in that time, countless generations have passed and any who once knew me are long dead.” Here he brightened, “which is also a reason for the apprenticeship I think, it offers companionship to those of us who have been so long alone and helps ease our newest recruits into a life quite foreign to their previous sensibilities. You are in the world but not of it, active in human society but never a part of it.” He smiled at Bren, “and then there is always our merry captain to consult if ever you need direction, guidance, or just someone to talk to.”

Kipril looked at said captain with a smile, and asked thoughtfully, “how then do we get our missions?”

Garren said with a shrug, “sometimes we hear from our captain or the Master Himself, but usually we just seem to fall into them, much as you two felt drawn to a certain Stone.” He yawned, “I think we had all best get some sleep, not that we need much, but even we must go to bed occasionally. It has been a rather eventful few days.”

Bayard laughed, “I’ve only died twice, been turned to stone, overthrown a King, toppled a Kingdom, and slain a Dragon. Nothing too grueling, certainly.” Garren gave him a patient look, the scamp grinned wickedly, and hastened off to bed with Kipril close behind.

They were up again by nightfall, feeling much refreshed, if a bit peckish. Bren had a hearty supper waiting for them, forcing Garren to quip, “I did not think cooking a requisite for your position, Sir.”

The former gatekeeper gave him a patient look and answered, “I have been far longer a gatekeeper and host than I have a captain. Old habits die hard me thinks. Of course, I think I shall be of far more value for my hospitality than for my wisdom pertaining to the warrior arts.”

Guyare laughed, “that is what you have me for, my friend. I can’t cook to save my life, so I think we shall make an acceptable team.”

They were just about to dig in when a knock sounded at the door. Five pairs of eyes looked up keenly, Bren leapt to his feet and hastened to the summons, giving the young rogues a warning glance to stay seated. They smiled impishly at him but remained in their places. He opened the door and found a lad of an age with Bayard and Kipril standing awkwardly on the doorstep. The boy glanced at the laden table eagerly, but crushed the cap in his hands and shifted his feet with nervous fervor. Bren could be an intimidating fellow when he wished it, which made him an invaluable gatekeeper, but he was also possessed of a great heart and a warmth none suspected, making him an even better host. Said he gently, “come in lad, you must be cold and no doubt hungry. We were just sitting down to supper and you are welcome to join us. Tell us your tale when it pleases you.” The boy’s eyes glowed in gratitude as Bren welcomed him amongst them and seated him between the other boys, who eagerly made room for him.

He paused a moment, unsure what to do, but Bren handed him a plate, and as the others began to help themselves, he lost all timidity and joined in. At last, warmed by the fire and his merry companions, the edge taken off his hunger, the boy said at last, “I wish to thank you all for your warm provision. I have not eaten in days nor had such merry company since I left home.” Kyan continued to tell his tale of a large but poor family and of his setting forth to seek his fortune, of an indifferent or even hostile world, of a long journey with no end in sight, and his joy at finding such welcome in a wood some called wild and others haunted.

Bren said warmly, “what is it you seek lad? You are certainly welcome to stay as long as you like.”

The boy shook his head, “I do not rightly know. I just knew my future was not to remain at home. My mother can barely feed the lot of us and I did not wish to be a burden any longer, though it broke her heart to see me go.” He said this last with a wistful tear in his eye. Bayard sighed heavily, wondering what it was to have a mother who missed you when you were gone. Kyan continued, “I will probably leave on the morrow, but am very grateful for all you have done on my behalf.” They spent the rest of the night in lively conversation, though the boy begged exhaustion and withdrew to bed after some hours, leaving the rest to mull over the future.

Kyan awoke to find an equally hearty breakfast laid out for him and a generous supply of trail-worthy food packed and awaiting his departure. As he ate, Garren asked, “do you mind company lad?”

The boy gaped, “sir, I hardly know where it is I go and would hate to importune you in the least.”

Garren laughed easily, “nay lad, you won’t be an inconvenience and whither we wander matters little to me, but I feel a need to be off myself and would welcome some company.”

The boy nearly glowed with excitement, “then certainly, sir, I would be honored.”

Garren smiled, “I hope you don’t mind me dragging those two irrepressible rapscallions along as well?” The boy grinned all the more, eager to have companions his own age. They talked of many things as the boy finished his breakfast while said rapscallions had yet to make an appearance. When asked after his young charges, Garren smiled and said, “they are attending to a few last minute details ere we set forth; they should be along shortly. I hope.”

 

Garren had sent the pair off into the woods ere sunrise, in the damp and cold of predawn, with explicit instructions not to return until they had accomplished what he asked. They were both excited and a little intimidated by his orders, but they obeyed and hoped soon to have mastered a vital skill in their new occupation. “Horses!” said Kipril with a shake of his head, “five horses. Would not one beast be effort enough?”

Bayard grinned, “perhaps, but this is not just an exercise but also in preparation of our upcoming journey. Besides, one beast would not give us near the practice that five must; he wants us to be proficient in the skill not just amateurs.”

Kipril shook his head again, rolled his eyes, but soon hastened deeper into the wood in search of a misty patch with which they might experiment. The wood suddenly opened onto a narrow meadow through which a slow brook meandered at its leisure and here a bank of mist idled ere the coming of the sun dispersed it. The boys dashed into its midst and shared an eager grin, each tentatively raising a hand as Garren had instructed them. They had asked if he might show them instead, but he insisted this was a skill learned by doing, not by watching. A slight glow appeared on each palm, bright in the gloom, as each concentrated on precisely what it was he wanted. The mist surrounding each hand began to glow and dance in response. They exchanged an excited smile, like two little boys together discovering some new mischief.

Bayard managed to thicken a patch of mist into a blobbish mass that might have been a child’s rendition of a horse in clay, but it dispersed as he lost concentration as Kipril burst out laughing. He frowned in annoyance at his companion, who had not even accomplished that much, before they both returned to their work with a will. An hour later, after several miserable creatures with no legs, too many legs, legs too short, a neck like a giraffe, and other such deformities had materialized and been dispersed, at last Bayard produced something that looked like an actual horse, only it was translucent, glowed slightly with azure light, and was blurred around the edges. One last bit of concentration and the thing whinnied eagerly, became solid, and stepped out of the fog, bucking and frisking as if it had been in a stall all winter. Kipril smiled excitedly, barely maintaining his concentration upon his own work in progress, but at last his creature too whickered in greeting and was soon kicking up its heels in the meadow alongside Bayard’s. Three more beasts soon materialized, each more quickly and of finer quality than the last. When the final creature dashed from the fog and raced around the perimeter of the lea, they felt confidant in their abilities to at least use this manifestation of their Master’s power.

Kipril frowned, “were we not also told to acquire the various tack and accouterments our fine herd will require?”

Bayard nodded, “yes, but I don’t think we need form them out of mist.” He called one of the beasts over and it complied immediately, standing patiently before not only its master but its maker as well. His hand began to glow once more as he raised it to the animal’s shoulder. The horse neither flinched nor drew aside, but the whole creature soon glowed with the same azure light. Bayard frowned in concentration and suddenly the light thickened and deepened in color upon the creature’s back and head. A moment later, a fully outfitted horse stood before him, tossing his head impatiently to be off. The boy smiled and met Kipril’s dancing gaze with his own. Soon each of the mist-born horses was saddled and ready to go.

Kipril gasped, “I almost forgot! We were supposed to somehow arm and outfit ourselves as well.”

Bayard grinned, “if we can do it with the horses, why not ourselves? Our physical forms are wrought of the same stuff!” He touched his cheek with his hand and suddenly his clothes began to glow and change, settling into garments far more suited for long wear and rough travel. He smiled impishly at the sword that now hung at his hip.

Kipril grinned, “do you even know how to use that thing?”

Bayard shrugged, “what do you think our apprenticeship is for? Come, get dressed and we will be off!” Kipril shrugged, adjusted his garb as easily as Bayard had done, though he felt slightly awkward with a sword he did not know how to use balanced on his hip, but then called over the pair of horses he had wrought as Bayard gathered up his own trio. Each mounted one horse, neither any more used to riding than they were to using a sword, and then took up the reins of the spares. Thankfully, as they were not real horses but rather phantoms wrought of light and mist, the beasts were rather docile and willing mounts, perfect for beginners. They emerged from the wood and left the horses outside the cottage, rushing inside to fetch Garren, eager to see what he would think of their handiwork.

Everyone came out to inspect the morning’s work, their mentor seemed quite pleased with their efforts while Bren and Guyare exchanged pleased smiles, and Kyan gaped in wonder, never having imagined that his new companions would give him the loan of such a beast. As the pack animal was loaded with their requisite supplies, they said their goodbyes and were soon in their saddles. Bren had not been very forthcoming in where he had found all they would need for their journey, but assured them that they would not be importuning him in the least by taking it. With a final nod, Garren bid the Captain and his aide a fond farewell and led the small party off into the rising day. Bayard waved until Bren was out of sight, feeling at last what it must be like to depart and have someone wishing you well and looking forward to your return. He sighed happily at the thought and his horse frisked in response, picking up his mood.

Garren fell back beside him and whispered, “with these mist-wrought beasts you need to be careful of what you think, for they are quite sensitive to the moods and whims of their maker. Even my mount got a little excited with whatever it was you were feeling.” Bayard grinned sheepishly and Garren clapped him on the back, “easy lad, that is what this apprenticeship is all about! You are doing splendidly, this is not an easy skill to master yet your beasts are as good as my own.” The boy glowed with pleasure and his three horses tossed their heads and whickered eagerly. The man smiled wryly, shook his head, gave the lad a knowing look, and then urged his horse alongside Kyan’s.

Kyan was nearly bouncing in his saddle, happily riding one of Kipril’s beasts and safe from Bayard’s inadvertently fractious outbursts, neophyte rider that he was, said he in wonder, “how can this be? I have companions, horses, and supplies! It is truly a miracle. Now all we need is a worthy quest and it will be an adventure indeed!”

Garren nodded, “that is what I wished to speak with you about. Have you any notion of a destination? We are free to follow you whither you will and our services and beasts are at your disposal.”

The boy thanked him profusely and Garren spent several minutes trying to get a word in edgewise, assuring him that he had had thanks enough and to spare. At last the lad said thoughtfully, “I had some vague notion of searching for the infamous Stone, but never thought it a sensible idea. It is only a legend after all and what is accomplished by finding the old relic, if it even exists? I had hoped some realistic path would open itself to me, but with the curious companions I have acquired, that nonsensical part of me is now stirring and I fear some absurd quest will be the result.”

Garren laughed heartily, “aye lad, many of life’s paths seem silly, ridiculous, or pointless at the first, but reveal themselves to be wondrous indeed. The old stories are full of such tales, what is one more? If you were free to go whither you would and do there whatever you might, what would it be?”

The boy grinned eagerly, “well, this is a proper story indeed. I have acquired mysterious companions, miraculous provisions for my journey, and a wizened sage to offer advice upon the way. Now all we lack is a quest. What of this Stone? My old grandmother told many a tale associated with it, and I believe the dear creature actually believed them true! I feel a strange sense of destiny, a draw almost as it were, to that particular legend but cannot explain why. If nothing more epic presents itself, let us make for the Stone, wherever it lies. Know you anything of the matter?”

Garren smiled as one lost in distant memory, said he in a vague murmur, more to himself than for his companion’s benefit, “aye lad, the Stone is real and the tales true; blessed is the heart that holds them dear. Ignore or disbelieve them to your own peril. I can lead you to the Stone, but what you will find upon that mountain I cannot say, for no two men have ever told the same tale of what they have experienced there. It is not a journey to be accomplished lightly or in jest, for it is perilous and well may cost you everything, more than your life, yea, your very soul. What think you lad?”

Kyan frowned thoughtfully, “my childish heart once hoped all that gran spoke was true, and yet you, a seasoned warrior and man of the world, agree that the tales told by old wives are the very truth?”

Garren chuckled, “nay lad, I did not say all myths, legends, gossip, and tall tales passed on before the fire of an evening are the very Truth. Rather I tell you the Stone and the tales surrounding it are True, the very heart of every tale ever told or yet to be; the most important story in all creation and perhaps beyond it.”

“Ah,” said the boy, “and my childish yearning for it to be so?”

Garren smiled warmly, “we are told that only a child-like heart may claim the promise and enter the Kingdom. Age and experience do not necessarily mean wisdom, but rather can harden our hearts and poison our minds against those things that are most important. Trust your old gran lad and your childish intuition, and more so the One of whom the tales speak.”

The boy sighed, “I must think on what you have said, but it is encouraging to know that I am not a fool to find such tales intriguing and to hope that they might be true. For you are no fool and yet you believe.”

Garren bowed his head in acknowledgement, and said as he turned his horse aside, “I will happily answer any questions you might have or if you have something you wish to discuss further, you need but ask. Shall we ride towards the Stone then, at least for now?” The boy smiled broadly and the man rode off with a merry laugh.

They stopped to rest and eat briefly in the midafternoon. Kyan was thoughtfully silent as he nibbled on his midday meal while Garren insisted his apprentices begin learning the rudiments of the sword. Kyan watched curiously as his companions flailed about with the weapons, wondering idly if either would lose a hand or worse. They mounted up and rode until the light began to fail. As they made camp, the three lads spoke eagerly together and jested amongst themselves. Garren watched their budding friendship with interest, wondering what strange fate awaited the unsuspecting Kyan, for few mortal men ever acquired a guard and escort of three Messengers and few sought the Stone unless Called, a phenomenon which did not come upon an unbelieving heart.

“He has been Called,” chirruped a magpie perched in the lowest branches of a nearby maple. Garren’s heart leapt in joy to know Who this bird was, as He continued, “but it is not the Call of the Messenger. Rather I have Called him to be King.” Garren gaped and the Bird laughed, “hence the precautions and provisions for his journey. He must choose whom he will serve: Me, himself, or the darkness. You three shall see that he survives to make that choice, but cannot interfere in his decision, save to speak with him upon various matters, if that be his wish. He will feel My call stirring in his heart, his own selfish thoughts will intrude, so too will My Enemy seek to own him; he must choose which shall be his master. As he chooses, so shall go the Kingdom.” And then He was gone.

Garren withdrew from the deepening shadows and approached the fire the lads now had merrily burning in the midst of their small camp. Only when Kyan was soundly asleep did he tell his apprentices of the revelations surrounding their quest. Bayard grinned, “the lad has a quest indeed, though he thinks himself merely on a self-imposed lark to spare his mother further expense when he might well end by saving or destroying a Kingdom!” He frowned, “what can the Stone mean to him if he is not seeking it as we did?”

Garren shook his head, “the Stone is far more than a trysting place for future Messengers, many and varied are the stories told thereof. It would be an ideal place for the lad to finally declare the intentions of his heart, whether it be for our Master or against Him.”

Kipril shivered, “what of this mention of the darkness seeking him out?”

Garren said in quiet dread, “this boy has a destiny and that will attract our Master’s enemies, who love nothing more than to corrupt that which our Master intends for good. It may only be shadowy whispers heard in his heart or mind, or there may be a manifestation of some sort that the boy must endure. We can only avail him if the servants of evil intend him physical harm or to force the issue. If they merely tempt, threaten, and lie, we must let the boy do as he will.”

Bayard said thoughtfully, “we have yet to be embroiled in any sort of combat, can we harm or thwart a mortal foe?”

Garren nodded, “we can cause superficial injury and momentary pain to a mortal opponent, but any lethal or crippling injury we render will be mitigated to a mere scratch, but enough to momentarily drive off any fiends intent on harming or seizing our wards.” He smiled roguishly, “or until they make off with our decoy.”

Kipril frowned in perplexity while Bayard wore a slight, thoughtful smile, said he, “we can form horses out of mist, change our clothes with a thought, why not our faces?”

Garren clapped him on the back, “precisely lad and a skill which you two should practice, that it might avail us if we should have need of it upon this little adventure.”

The lads exchanged a merry grin and spent the better part of the night amusing themselves thus, Garren finding no little delight in their antics. Eventually he chivied them to bed and stood watch himself; he could sleep another night. They were up with the first birds and in their saddles not long thereafter. Several weeks passed quietly in this vein, but as promised, the idyllic journey did not long remain so, for they were nearing a certain mountain where destinies were forged or lost.

The weather was fine and the habitations of men so few and far between in those lands, that they had slept under the dome of heaven since the night they vacated the captain’s homely cottage, but Garren felt an itch to mingle with his fellow men this night. He broached the subject to all three of the lads, but only Bayard was eager to accompany him to the local inn for a night among their own kind. Kipril said with a grin, “spend this beautiful night choking on pipe smoke listening to complete strangers grouse about the price of pigs? Yes, that sounds intriguing indeed!” Kyan nodded his agreement and it was swiftly decided that Garren and Bayard would return before midnight while the others enjoyed a quiet evening with only the crickets for company.

As the pair set off, Bayard said with a frown, “this is no mere lark, is it?”

Garren smiled grimly, “nay lad, tonight the plot thickens. Do you think you could disguise yourself as the future King?” He barked a laugh to see that the lad had already done just that, unasked, and so much did he resemble Kyan that Garren almost turned back to assure himself that he had accompanied the right lad.

Bayard smiled eagerly, “it shall be interesting to see what our enemies make of my disguise.”

Garren nodded, “the night shall tell. I hope Kipril knows what to do when we do not return.”

Bayard grinned with fiendish anticipation, “we know our parts; he shall know his. There shall be surprises indeed this night, but I think they shall be on the side of our enemies.” Garren nodded his agreement but schooled his face to a bland smile as they approached the inn.

 

Kyan retired early, pleading exhaustion and a headache while Kipril watched the night, uneasy for the first time in days; he felt something evil stirring and wished with all his heart Garren were there, but somehow he knew that neither of his friends would be returning, at least not this evening. He shuddered and offered a silent prayer in hopes that he was ready for whatever the night would reveal. He glanced at the sleeping Kyan, who seemed to be having uneasy dreams, tossing, turning, and muttering as he was. Then he turned his gaze outwards, but he knew this was not an enemy he could fight, neither would it come from without the camp or in physical form, at least not yet.

Kyan wandered in a grey land of a perpetual autumn twilight with leaden clouds lowering ominously overhead while beneath his feet, great puffs of equally drab dust erupted with each step, for there had never been even the thought of rain or moisture in this grim land. Occasionally a bitter wind gusted, driving the powdery dust before it in great clouds, blowing grit mercilessly into the eyes, mouth, and nose of the weary wanderer. He was tired, oh so tired, weary as death. He would do anything to rest. Then even the wan, sad light vanished, leaving only utter blackness. The wind howled like a thing possessed with the bite of winter in its breath. Then the darkness laughed. Kyan shuddered in terror, for that laugh was far worse than the wailing wind, but he refrained from running blindly, rather he stood his ground, waiting for whatever lurked to pounce or consume him utterly.

Came the voice, “will you lay your head upon the block little wretch and spill out your blood for one you do not know?”

The boy shivered but knew the thing, whatever it was, spoke of things to come, said he with quavering voice, “what would you have of me?”

The darkness chortled, “I of you? Nothing! Wretch! Rather it is for you to beg mercy of me! Come willingly and it will spare you much pain, for the end can only be the same. You will die unless you come to me. He will promise all manner of wonderful things, but in the end it will all be for naught. They all die, all those He claims to love and protect. Their blood fuels His horrible schemes, only I can spare you from such a fate, but I do not take just anyone. You could run from both of us, Him and I, but I shall find you regardless. Come willingly and I might be generous.” It chuckled like bubbles rising in a putrid pond, “then again, I might not.”

Kyan trembled uncontrollably, he did not know who this infamous ‘He’ was but neither did he like or trust this taunting, invisible voice. At least he knew that much. Said he with a boldness that astonished him, “do your worst, I shall never be yours.” There came a deep, ominous laugh that prophesied horrors unimaginable for his folly, but Kyan did not care. Whatever betide, it must be better than begging this thing for mercy, a trait he was certain the thing did not possess. He woke with that thunderous, mirthless rumble still echoing in his heart and mind. Cried he into the thick darkness about him, “am I utterly forsaken?”

Kipril’s gentle voice came immediately in reassurance, “fear not, you are neither alone nor in immediate peril.” Kyan heard a wry smile in the voice, “save perhaps from blood thirsty insects.” Kyan relaxed immediately, now aware of the comforting noises common to a summer night all about him. He rolled over and slept soundly the whole night through. But that feeling of dread intensified threefold when he awoke to find their companions had not returned. Kipril said grimly, “we cannot wait. Things are dreadfully amiss; we must make for the Stone with all haste.” Kyan was about to protest that they could not abandon their companions, but then he remembered the horror of his dream that was far more real than waking life, shuddered, and nodded dully. Whatever waited at this infamous Stone, it must be destiny indeed for such efforts to be made to either thwart or corrupt him. He nodded gravely and immediately set about breaking camp.

 

Bayard, in guise like Kyan, and Garren sat at a table in the middle of the common room, listening vaguely to the indifferent singer in one corner and watching a trio of tradesmen at their game of darts in another. The evening passed slowly and uneventfully enough that Bayard mused that Kyan and Kipril had probably had the right idea, but he knew without question that he was supposed to be in this place, disguised as he was. It only waited to be seen why. The answer quite rudely interrupted his introspection as three unwashed and rather burly villains surrounded their table. Snarled the widest of the ruffians, “would you be so kind as to come with us?”

Garren was surreptitiously reaching for his sword, when he cried out in anguish and collapsed with a knife in his ribs. The man demanded again, “are you coming or need we become rough?”

Bayard glared at them, glanced uneasily at the unmoving form of his friend, and then the world erupted into a brilliant light before falling suddenly into pain and darkness. The thugs bore the unconscious form of their captive out into the night, the last rogue dragging the corpse along and dumping it unceremoniously in the brush along one side of the clearing wherein their horses were tethered. They threw the slumped Bayard across a saddle and thundered off into the night. The inn patrons huddled down behind various tables and furniture, hoping to avoid any share in the disturbance, so there was no one to raise an outcry or resist the fiends. Silence enwrapped the night once more, Garren lay oblivious amongst the ferns and bramble, but a magpie flitted out of a nearby tree and lit on the dead man’s chest. Though far from nocturnal, this Bird had no difficulty seeing at night, for it was His handiwork. He pecked the unmoving form and they vanished together in a flash of brilliant blue. When at last the inn patrons emerged, they found nothing but churned earth and crushed vegetation to say that the villains had ever been.

 

For two days, the pair ascended into the foothills and then the mountain itself. They spoke little, and then only in whispers, as if they feared unseen ears. Both felt an oppressive sense of both dread and eagerness pressing upon them and much did they wonder what awaited them at the Stone. As twilight fell on the second day, Kyan cried out in alarm. Kipril drew rein just behind him and studied the creature that loomed out of the darkness with more curiosity than dread, for he had seen the monster before. They had come to a bifurcation in the path, the main trail would lead to the Stone while the other circled around the slope and out of sight. He had planned to push on as long as they could, hoping that his keen night vision and the rising moon would allow them to reach the Stone this night, but the creature lurking ahead barred their way.

Kyan was atremble, with eyes for nothing but the minotaur standing unmoving on the path before them. It blinked ox-like eyes that glowed faintly golden in the moonlight, but which were far too keen for anything of a bovine persuasion. It growled, “ye seek the Stone?” Kyan nodded in dread. The thing snarled, “then be on your way.” He eyed Kipril stonily, “your companion shall go no further.” Kipril nodded once in acknowledgement, knowing the creature would see despite the darkness.

At last Kyan found his voice, “I will not abandon my friend to your mercy or lack thereof!”

The creature shook its head and laughed grimly, “and how would you gainsay me lad? You must seek your destiny alone, as this one must pursue his.”

Kyan quivered in absolute terror but whispered, “we shall face this end together.”

The minotaur actually smiled, though grimly, “nay lad, it shall not be. I applaud your courage, you will need it with what awaits ahead, but it shall not avail you here. Things shall be as they must.”

He had been slowly moving towards the pair and now stood at Kipril’s stirrup, the mist-wrought horse taking no fright at the beast’s approach. The boy felt no fear but was quite thoroughly astonished to see an all too familiar light appear bluely upon the monster’s hairy palm. The creature touched his radiant appendage to Kipril’s leg, he felt an answering pulse from the mark upon his chest, and then his entire being throbbed with the light, became the light, and vanished therewith. Kyan cried, “no!” But the minotaur had vanished along with the Messenger, leaving him utterly alone. There was nothing to do but go on and discover what awaited him at this infamous Stone and see if it was worth the price. With a heavy heart he turned his horse along the main path and followed it ever onwards.

 

Bayard awoke with a throbbing head, not helped in the least by the jolting trot of the horse beneath him; he thought a lame ox might have a smoother gait. Someone noticed the captive was awake and celebrated his revival with another ungentle whack to the back of his skull. He obligingly retreated again into oblivion. When he awoke again, he was tied securely to a spindly tree, one of the few to be found on this barren stretch of the road, with the rogues encamped a stone’s throw up slope from him. They did not bother themselves about him until they were ready to set off the following day. They tossed him a few pieces of biscuit and a bit of dried meat; he was offered a short draught of fetid water from a leaking skin and then forced into the saddle of a spare horse; his hands were securely bound and the reins held by one of the thugs. They said nothing to him and spent two days traveling thus, reaching a place Bayard knew all too well as evening fell on the second day. With a shudder, he wondered what purpose could bring such rogues as these to the Stone.

At last they paid their captive some heed. They cut his bonds and drug him bodily from his horse, forcing him to kneel before the Stone, as he had done of his own accord what seemed ages ago. The widest of the ruffians drew his sword as his companions kept the captive in a forced crouch before the notorious Stone.

“Now,” said he, sword at the ready, “it is time to determine your fate and the destiny of a kingdom. Will you bow before our master, as he has so graciously asked you to do, or shall this nation be bereft of its King ere he is ever crowned?”

Bayard said boldly, “I have but one Master and I shall bow before no other.”

The villain shrugged indifferently, hefted his sword, and said, “then on your feet at least and die like a man.”

The fiends holding Bayard forced him to stand facing the sword-wielding scoundrel, who then drove his blade with such force into the boy’s abdomen that it came out the other side, pushing the boy back atop the Stone, and actually buried itself in solid rock. The boy’s agonized cry was as music to the murderer’s ears, but the killer grew rather annoyed when he tried to withdraw his weapon but it held fast in the Stone. He took a step back to study his handiwork, his eyes wide with wonder and fear, unable to comprehend what had just happened. The boy clutched futilely at the blade pinning him to the Stone, agony written in his face and eyes. The rogue’s eyes widened as a great bellow rent the night; abandoning the sword and his victim, he and his cronies dashed off with all the speed terror could lend. Bayard lay panting and limp, unheeding of all else. He felt a firm but gentle hand upon his shoulder, vaguely recalled golden eyes gleaming in the darkness, heard a murmured, “easy lad,” and then the light consumed him.

The minotaur stood over the Stone, the sword still stuck fast though the agonized Messenger had vanished, but it was not a boy he saw, rather a man, the Man with eyes full of love and sorrow beyond the world’s comprehension, and it was he that had pierced Him through. Tears glistened unshed in the creature’s eyes and a sad smile touched his lips, that had been centuries ago, and it was far from the end of the tale. A sudden noise brought him back to the present and he glanced about in the darkness, straining his ears for a repetition of the incongruous noise. It came again and his gaze pierced the perpetrator as surely as the sword had Bayard.

A tremulous, weeping cry arose from the distraught form, “why?!”

The creature allowed his features to melt into something less hideous, this was no time for an ogre or a minotaur, but rather it was the face of the man he had once been, said he gently, but anticipation was ill-contained in his voice, “come out of the shadows lad and face your destiny.”

The boy squeaked, whether in dismay or horror, the man knew not, but he crept from his hiding place and gave the figment before the Stone a grim, grievous look, as if his very soul might break asunder. Whispered he, “why?”

The man asked quietly, “why what?”

Kyan hiccupped a swallowed sob, “why the threats, the taunts, the blood? Why did a man wearing my face, yet who was not me, find himself pierced upon this accursed Stone? Why all the mystery? What is so important about me or this rock? What has come of my friends?”

The man smiled gravely, “lad, whether you will or not, you are the appointed King of this realm. You must decide to take up the sword and crown or to run away and let war and chaos have its due. His Lordship and his fell beast are this night undone but there is none to claim the crown, save what old prophets have sung: the Blade, buried in Stone, shall pierce him who is tyrant’s bane and beast’s unmaking; he who pulls it forth, the rightful King shall be.”

The boy glanced dully at the sword buried in the Stone and said in a quivering voice, “you expect me to pull that wretched sword from the Stone? Me? Are you mad?”

The man shook his head, “nay lad, it is my Master’s will, not my own idea. He has Called you to this, your friends have sacrificed to see that you came to this place and time unhindered. It is your choice whether to take up the sword or let all fall into ruin.”

The boy gaped in disbelief, “but what of my friends? That man with my face? Those fiends?”

The man shook his head grimly, “they were set upon stopping you at any cost; the boy took your place that you need not die here this night.”

The boy shook his head in wonder, “but how could he look so like me?”

The man smiled wryly, “did you not see the face I previously wore? It is a skill peculiar to a certain order of my Master’s servants, this ability to change our features at will. It was the same with this man, who is in fact one of your missing friends.”

The boy’s eyes held hope as the east the dawn, “do they yet live? The other you consumed with light?”

The man’s eyes danced, “yes lad, your friends are whole and living, set upon a quest vital to the success of this scheme, if you choose to accept it, that is?”

The boy bore a weak smile, “I will not serve the darkness; I in myself am nothing and could be no fit King. That leaves me but one choice, but have I the courage?”

The man said quietly, “if you do not, thousands will suffer and likely die.”

The boy eyed him grimly, “nothing like a little pressure and emotional coercion!”

The man laughed ruefully, “sorry lad, but it is the very truth of the matter.”

The boy nodded vaguely, but his eyes narrowed, and he asked, “what is your part in all of this? How can you utterly consume a man with light?”

The man smiled, knowing the boy was playing for time, still struggling with his own heart, said he, “I ward the Stone, and have since the day my Master died upon it, by my hand.”

The boy gaped, “you?! How is that possible? That was centuries ago and your hand bears His blood?!”

The man smiled sadly, “aye lad, I was horrified when I realized He was no mere criminal but rather an innocent man sacrificed for political convenience, nay not a mere man, but the Man, the Maker Himself made flesh. I was set to take my own life, but a vision of Him spared me that horrid end and I flung myself upon His mercy. He set me over this Stone, to advise, guide, and protect those that come seeking it. Those of my order do not age and if we should die, it is not a permanent condition, as you will witness when your friends return.”

The boy gaped in wonder, but he seemed at last to have come to a decision, for though he was still nervous, he was far more relaxed in tone and bearing. The sun was beginning to rise as he grasped the hilt and pulled forth the blade. The mist that had shrouded the pair suddenly evaporated as he laid his hand to the hilt, and a gasp of wonder and a shout of joy filled the air, as suddenly the entire mountainside was crowded with people. Kyan fell to his knees before the Stone in astonishment and the Warder of the Stone stepped forth, hand extended to receive the sword. The boy gave up the blade without hesitation, still perplexed at the sudden appearance of so many people and their inexplicable joy at what he had done.

Said the Warder with all solemnity, “you have been Called to the Kingship, do you now accept it?” The boy nodded with all his heart but found he had no voice. The man smiled deeply, as he intoned, “and in whose name will you serve?”

This time the boy found his tongue and stammered, “I will serve Him who called me to this place and time, He whose blood yet stains this Stone, spilled on behalf of all men that would seek it.”

Said the Warder gravely, “take then the Blood shed on thy behalf, and bind yourself to Him that you might rule as He would have you.”

The boy did as he was bidden while the silent throng watched in awe and dread, erupting again in murmured joy after he had done so. The next moment he felt the flat of the sword touch first one shoulder and then the other, as the uncanny man announced, “you are this day knighted into the Order of the Stone, long may you serve thus.” The boy’s eyes were wide, he could hardly believe himself King, but to his overwrought sensibilities a Knighthood was somehow even more unfathomable. He barely had presence of mind enough to take back the sword, which he fumblingly slid into the scabbard that had inexplicably appeared at his side. The next moment the man was bending over him, his hands glowing intensely blue; a silver circlet appeared in his hands, seemingly wrought of that strange light, and as he placed it on Kyan’s head, he intoned solemnly, “and now do I crown thee the true and rightful King of all this Realm, long held in thrall by a tyrant and his unholy beast. Rise and accept the witness and acclaim of these, your subjects.” As the crown settled on his brow, Kyan felt the light ripple through his entire being and his heart answered with a strange, resonating throb.

Kyan rose without thought or fear, too stunned for either, and turned to face the throng. They fell to their knees before him and Kyan could do naught but gape, but the Warder was at his side, smiling slightly in amusement, and whispered quietly. The boy shook himself out of his astonishment, schooled his features to joyful solemnity, and motioned for the host to rise, which they did with much jubilant shouting and a flurry of tossed caps. He could not help but grin, as unkingly as that might seem, it felt the only thing appropriate for this joyous moment. His grin became smile indeed when a trio of men stepped out of the throng, each clad in a white tabard bearing a rampant silver unicorn; one bore a banner with the same crest and all three grinned like fools in their joy and excitement. They bowed, the eldest stepped forward and saluted, “forgive our tardiness Sire, but we have returned and are reporting for duty, if you will have us, that is?” Then Kyan did a very unkingly thing indeed as he stepped forth and threw himself into Garren’s arms. Bayard and Kipril grinned madly at one another for a moment and then joined the joyous greeting. They could worry about protocol on the morrow.

The crowd watched the reunion with amusement and perplexity, whistling and shouting its enthusiasm for such a greathearted king. Many had traveled far for this moment, half skeptical that it could truly be; they were quite delighted to find the spectacle far more than they ever anticipated and looked forward to telling their children to the fourth generation what it was they had seen. As the Messengers withdrew and stepped quite respectfully off to one side, a small crowd stepped out of the larger mass, this one far more timid and unsure but no less eager. Kyan gaped once more, thankful that he had no court officials yet to throw into fits of apoplexy for his utter lack of decorum befitting a royal personage, for his entire family had somehow made the long and arduous trek to appear at this precise moment. He swallowed his shock and motioned joyously for his timid kin to come forth. They erupted into merry haste and nearly buried him in their enthusiasm.

At last the greetings and reunions were accomplished and the Warder, as acting Steward, announced that it was time to eat, which brought even more cheering from the excited crowd. Kyan gaped once more, wondering where they were to find a ready laid feast for so many in such a desolate spot, but as in all else, what was needed was already provided. A quaint cottage, one he gapingly recognized as the starting point of this bizarre adventure, stood off in the distance with countless tables heavily laden with food standing ready before the door. A familiar pair of men stood on the doorstep, smiling broadly and waving excitedly. The onlookers took one look and hastened to be the first in line, leaving the King to his servants and immediate kin, who laughed heartily at this sudden revelation of where his subjects’ true affections lay. Once the ravening horde had had its fill, only then did the King’s party make their stately way to the tables still groaning under the weight of such provision. Kyan grinned at Garren around a forkful of food, “I have the odd feeling that this adventure has hardly begun.” The man’s roguish smile was answer enough.

The celebration lasted for several days, during which none lacked for food; the fine weather and heather clad slopes offered ideal conditions for sleeping where stars might watch. Eventually, most of the celebrants began to drift home, bearing glad tidings of all they had seen to their far-flung kith and kin. A few adventurous lads and no few men experienced in the ways of the sword remained behind, feeling they might be of service to their King. Garren talked quietly with the latter while his two apprentices spoke eagerly with the former. By the time the King’s party was ready to set forth, he was surrounded by a respectable guard. Kyan stood beside his horse, making his final farewells to the Warder of the Stone and the Captain of the Messengers. Said he, “will you not come with me?” He grimaced nervously, “I can use all the faithful souls I can find at the moment.”

The Warder slapped him on the back with a broad grin, “nay lad, I cannot leave the mountain nor abandon the Stone; my duty lies here. But our Master has brought you faithfully thus far, as He shall ever guide you. Trust Him and you cannot go astray.”

The Captain grinned, his Aide beside him, “we shall be wherever we are needed lad, perhaps our paths shall cross again in days to come, and if not, then there shall come a Day when all faithful hearts shall never again be sundered. Fare thee well!”

Kyan looked questioningly to Garren, the new Captain of his Guard, who nodded once in answer to his silent query. The party was ready and only awaited the King’s pleasure to set forth. Kyan smiled in farewell to those that would remain, climbed aback his horse, and the party set off with hope in the morning. As the horses vanished around a bend in the path, two lads remained behind, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, occasionally exchanging embarrassed glances but otherwise staring awkwardly at the ground. The Captain and his Aide exchanged a knowing grin, bid farewell to the Warder, and entered the Cottage, which vanished thereupon, leaving the antsy lads alone with the Warder upon that stark hillside. Said he, “why do you linger behind lads and look as if you were guilty of some great crime besides?”

They exchanged a rueful smile and then glanced hopefully at the man, only blinking slightly to see that the Cottage had vanished, having seen so many strange things in the past few days that a vanishing house was hardly interesting, said Ithril, “we would know more sir.”

The Warder frowned slightly, “more of what lad?”

Piped Corbin, “the Stone! The magic that seems to wrap it about, its part in the overthrow of his Lordship and the Beast, and its choosing of a King.”

The Warder shook his head, “there is no magic in the Stone lads, rather it is He who died upon it that gives it any meaning at all. Would you too sacrifice your lives upon that altar to solve your mysteries?”

The lads exchanged an uneasy but eager glance, said Ithril, “that I would.”

Corbin stared at his feet, kicking uneasily at the ground with one toe, “I am not so sure.”

The Warder nodded grimly, “if you are certain lad, hie yourself up the ridge and see what awaits you thither.” He said gravely to Corbin, “abide you here lad or go home in peace, for if you are not certain of your courage, the Stone holds nothing for you.”

Corbin met his stony eyes for a moment and nodded soberly, “tarry I will, at least until I am certain of my own heart.” He glanced about in wonder, for the man had vanished. Ithril gave him a sad but joyous smile, and then raced upslope to discover his own destiny. Corbin watched him go until he disappeared over a far hill and then sank upon the heather, his brow furrowed in solemn thought. As evening settled around him, he rose and followed his friend beyond that distant rise.

 

Ithril found the spot where the Stone lay a far different place than it was the morning the Sword had been drawn forth and the King crowned. A bitter wind gusted out of the north and dark clouds, heavy laden with snow, hid the once bright sun. He shivered more in dread than cold, but eagerly sought that for which he had come. Innumerable stones lay scattered about the barren waste, and only as he searched frantically among them for the proper Stone did he realize what they were: gravestones, toppled and broken. He heard a rumble like stone being ground to dust and looked to the source, only to recoil in terror, for a great wyrm had raised itself from among the scree and stared at him with scornful, hungry eyes, and in a voice like thunder it grated, “is this what you truly seek?”

The boy quivered in terror, glanced down in horror, and stared in astonishment at the blood covered Stone at his feet. He knew he could flee this very moment and escape unscathed or he could kneel before the Stone and offer himself up like a lamb to the hideous dragon that loomed over him. He glanced once more at the monster, as his knees buckled before the Stone; the creature’s answering smile was far more hideous than its scorn. Ithril swallowed hard but held firmly to his chosen fate, waiting impatiently for the promised doom. It was the incongruous song of a lark in that place that drew his eyes from the bloody Stone before him up into those of He who had wrought him; he shivered in terror and delight.

 

The King’s party made camp at the base of the mountain that night and Kyan hoped at last to get some answers, but first he had to listen patiently as a terrified and joyous messenger brought word that indeed, the Tyrant and his Beast had been overthrown. The envoy was astonished to hear the news that there was a King indeed, who even now was intent on establishing his reign over the stolen realm and that all interested parties were to meet him in Gormanth ere the month was out to settle the matter once and for all. The man spent the night in the camp, speaking with those who had witnessed the event, and the next morning went his way rejoicing, no longer afraid, and able to tell one and all that his Lordship was overthrown and a King had indeed arisen. So it was that word continued to spread of the King’s coming, and Kyan at last found himself alone with his Messengers, with many an unasked question roiling in his mind.

Garren smiled at him knowingly while the two apprentices grinned like fools, knowing he was fit to burst with curiosity. His Majesty slumped in a camp chair, thoughtfully provided by the Captain with all the rest of their paraphernalia, and asked, eyeing Garren intently, “can I at last hear the full tale?”

Garren, perched upon a stack of crates, smiled deeply, “aye lad, that you may.” He watched the new King to see if he took any offense at his informal tone, continuing easily when he did not, “I will fill in the details as best I can and you may ask after anything that still puzzles you.” The boy nodded eagerly and Garren began his tale, telling of the overthrow of his Lordship and the Beast, of how the Messengers could truly be active in more than one tale and place at any given moment, and of all that had happened since their parting.

The boy nodded and often gaped as each part of the tale was revealed, at last he asked, “and what were each of you about after our parting? The Warder said it was somehow vital to the establishment of my throne?”

Garren nodded, “aye lad, for without us, no one would have witnessed your retrieval of the Sword or your coronation, thus no one would know that Prophecy had been fulfilled. We have each spent several months wandering the realm,” here he paused to let the boy’s astonishment pass, before continuing, “spreading word of what was to come and that any so interested, should hie themselves to the Stone to stand witness forthwith. And as you have seen, many have answered, including your entire family and many a man willing to serve you in some fashion. Many others have gone forth as witnesses to all corners of the realm. By the time we arrive in Gormanth, none should be surprised at your coming and hopefully no one will act rashly to take over where his Lordship left off.”

Kyan was silent for some moments as he absorbed what the man had said, but at length he asked, “the Warder was possessed of many uncanny abilities and seemed to imply that you were as well. Your return from death is witness enough to that.” Here he paused, unsure of how to voice his thoughts.

Garren saved him the trouble, saying thoughtfully, “you know that you have not come away from this unchanged yourself.” The boy unconsciously touched the place over his heart at these words but nodded intently, said Garren with a reminiscent smile, “you bear the mark of one sworn to the Stone, by the very blood of our Master, but you have been Called to something quite different than a common Messenger, such as we three. A newly sworn Messenger must first die before his calling and skills begin to manifest, but in your unique situation they were given with the Crown, as such, you are still very much a mortal man, whereas we can no longer have a permanent place within human society, save where our duty takes us; you may yet take a wife, father children, maim and kill other men, and most especially rule a nation, all of which are to us strictly forbidden.”

He let the boy contemplate his words for a time and then continued, “but neither are you possessed of the full skillset of the Messengers. You cannot change your face and form at will or need. Death is not a minor inconvenience but rather, as for all men, the end of your mortal existence, save that as one marked by the Stone, you may then enter service with the Messengers, but your kingly duties shall then pass to another, regardless.”

Said the boy with a thoughtful frown, “what of my children and heir? Shall these uncanny skills pass by blood and become part of my family legacy?”

Garren shook his head, “nay lad, it must be a conscious decision on the part of each of us. Rather, pass your crown on to the one best suited to it, not to your firstborn as tradition dictates, only then shall your legacy be long and blessed. Your successors will be imbued with such skills only if they have done as you: swearing themselves to our Master’s service by the Blood and the Stone, otherwise they shall be as any other King of men.”

Kyan yawned, but asked one last question, “how long will I have the honor of your company?”

Garren shrugged, “who knows? You have many enemies Sire, and until your throne is established and your Kingdom secure, you are vulnerable indeed. We are at your service until we are bidden elsewhere or you retire from the crown.” The King yawned again and he reluctantly agreed to go to bed at his servants’ insistence, feeling far more a recalcitrant child at that moment than a King. With the King abed and his apprentices warding his sleep, Garren felt drawn inexplicable into the night and up the mountain. The sentries eyed him curiously but let him pass without comment, a silent shadow in the night.

 

Ithril sat among the heather in the twilight, uncertain exactly where he was or what had happened. Had it all been a hideous and glorious dream, or was it truly real? The crunch of feet on the stony ground drew him from his reverie and revealed Corbin sliding awkwardly down the hillside upon which he sat. He met the other’s beaming gaze with one of his own and their smiles said more than words ever could. It had not been a dream nor had Corbin’s courage failed at the last. Corbin settled beside him among the heather and whispered joyfully, “it is indeed true!” Ithril nodded in eager reply and they sat quietly together as the night drew on and watched the stars bejewel the heavens, fully content with the world and their place in it, whatever that might prove to be, for little did they know of that which they had done.

They must have dozed off, for they woke to find the sun on the rise and heard a bellowing voice demanding satisfaction. They exchanged an intrigued look and hastened to their feet, suddenly finding themselves surrounded by grim looking men with weapons at the ready. The bawler, and leader of the company, glared at these disturbers of his display but drew his own weapon and approached the intruders, as curious as he was perturbed by their interruption. He studied the pair but was not impressed, for they appeared nothing more than a pair of scruffy peasant children who had been sleeping amongst the heather, for that is what they were.

Said he with all pride, “stand forth knaves and declare yourselves!” They blinked at him blankly, without comprehension. Snarled he, proffering his sword, “what are you doing lingering amongst the heather on this haunted mountain? Have you any idea who I am?” They shook their heads and shrugged vaguely. He rolled his eyes and sighed, but continued in a scornful voice, “I am the Rider’s son and heir! I am here to fulfill prophecy that I might displace my father and his fell master.” They stared at him agape, wondering if he knew aught of what he boasted.

Ithril at last found his tongue, said he, “but the Rider had many sons, how is any to know his true heir? Not that it matters, for the Beast is destroyed and his Lordship overthrown, along with most of the Rider’s sons and their sire.”

It was the man’s turn to gape, stuttered he, “what is this you say? How know you this? Can it be true?”

Corbin nodded, “aye it is true, we had word of it from those who saw it happen. That is why we linger here, for we watched as the Sword was drawn forth and the King crowned. His party departed not long ago and we have tarried after upon our own ramblings.”

“The King?!” barked the Rider’s son, “but I am to be King! I will find the Stone and draw forth the Sword, as it is written!”

Ithril shook his head, as if speaking to a rather dense neighbor, “so it is written, but not of you!”

The man snarled, “so say you, but I have as much right to the throne as any upstart without even a title or a proper lineage. Is he of noble birth or at least a Knight or son of some fell lord?”

Corbin shook his head and smiled roguishly, “he was knighted the very day he was crowned, but he is a peasant born and bred, my lord.”

The man hefted his sword and smiled grimly, “we shall see if he is worthy of the crown then. I am at least the son of a noble lady with the Rider as my sire. I shall challenge him to single combat for the crown.”

Ithril snorted, “you will be denied. You have no claim to the throne whatsoever. Be gone and find something worthwhile to do with your life, for this pursuit can only end in disaster.”

Gorvin sneered, “little you know, fool! I shall be King, one way or another, for it has been promised me by one whom even one so insolent as you would dare not defy. But first let me see this Stone for myself and then I shall deal with your so-called King.”

Corbin shook his head adamantly, but his words died aborning, as another bellow rent the morning air with all the vehemence of an enraged bull, “what do you want?”

All eyes turned to look upon the enraged minotaur and even the neophyte Messengers, who knew better, took a step back in apprehension. Gorvin mastered himself, and said snidely, “ah beast, I was warned of your presence upon this forsaken mountain and am ready to deal with you as I must. Tell me whither lies the Stone and it need not go badly for you.”

The creature gaped, never having met a man who dared demand anything of so terrifying a vision, not even begging for his life; most were terrified into silence, if not flight. Said he crisply, with a derisive snort, “you will not find the Stone, even if you search every inch of this mountainside and spend all your allotted days therein. Only those my Master Calls can find it thus. Be gone, for there is naught here for such as thee.”

Gorvin held his sword to Corbin’s throat and snarled, “reveal to me the Stone or I shall gladly shed innocent blood upon your sacred mountain.”

The creature smiled insipidly, flicked one great ear lazily back, and said with a shrug, “do as you wish, his would not be the first nor shall it be the last.”

Gorvin’s sword slumped as his hand went limp in incomprehension, “his life means nothing to you?”

The monster shrugged again and began to turn away, “what is one mortal more or less to me? Search if you will, but it is futile.”

Gorvin clutched his sword firmly once again and lunged at the minotaur. The beast bellowed in agony as the blade struck true and fell gasping to the earth, grated he, “what has this accomplished?”

The insolent youth cleaned his bloodied blade on Ithril’s cloak and shrugged with a cruel smile, “I have just slain the fearsome Beast of the Mountain, if nothing else it shall impress the ladies no end and may just aid my claim to the throne.” But there came no answer, as the Warder’s eyes stared vacantly. Gorvin shrugged again, smiled upon his handiwork, and ordered his men to bring the captives, for they must at least search for the Stone. He turned eager eyes upon the pair and said, “you have seen the Stone. Lead me hence!”

Corbin gazed sadly at the slain Warder, then shook his head, “the creature spoke truly, the Stone can only be found by those who have some needful business therewith. You do not and will search in vain.”

Gorvin snarled, “we shall try this day at least. Lead on to the place where you last beheld it.” The pair exchanged a look, shrugged, and led the way. The company marched grimly after, whispering darkly in their master’s wake, uneasy at his rash pursuit. They crested the rise and the lads pointed down into the valley below.

Corbin said, “it lies amidst this vale. Can you see it?”

Gorvin scowled but ordered his men onwards, but after an hour of combing the dell, he had to admit that perhaps it was hopeless. Growled he at Ithril, “you can see it even now?” The boy nodded, unable to keep the smile from his face. The next moment he was rising unsteadily to his feet after Gorvin’s hard smack, snarled the furious youth, “what business then do you have with the Stone that you can see it when your betters cannot?” Ithril shrugged and received another smack for his trouble. Gorvin towered over the prone boy and grated, “very well, I shall see Prophecy fulfilled one way or another. If I cannot do this with the Stone, we shall do it without.” He smiled darkly, “and I fear you will not enjoy what is to come.” He shuddered then in dread, “I had hoped to avoid this myself but there seems to be no other choice.” His smile became grim indeed, “but it shall be far the worse for you.”

They spent the balance of the day trekking back down the mountainside in search of the ancient tombs that marred the far side of the slope. Twilight was falling and the moon had not yet risen when they reached their destination, Gorvin nodded in satisfaction but shuddered in absolute dread. He drew his dagger and slashed his own palm, then had his men restrain Ithril as he repeated the procedure with the struggling boy. The boy clutched his bleeding hand and glared at Gorvin, who smiled mirthlessly in return, said he, “into the crypt with you.” Ithril shuddered, but knew if he did not go willingly they would force him, so he decided it had best be of his own accord. He gave Corbin a last, grim smile and vanished into the indicated tomb; Gorvin tossed the dagger after him as his minions slid a great stone slab over the opening with a thunderous crash. And then they waited.

 

Ithril blinked in the utter darkness, feeling something more dreadful than Death lurking in the corners, laughing at him. Something moved in the blackness, a blot darker than the night itself. It continued to laugh and mock the terrified boy as it slowly approached. Scorn and doubt and horror roiled in the boy’s mind. Where was his Master now? The boy shuddered and fell trembling to his knees as the thing latched onto him like a leech. He felt it absorbing him greedily, as a starved dog devours a haunch of meat; he grew thinner and less real and suddenly all was blackness, nothing but infinite dark. Ithril’s bones clattered to the stony floor while the shadow that now wore flesh smiled in malicious satisfaction. Then it bellowed with a great voice and demanded to be freed of its interment, an order with which Gorvin’s minions tremblingly complied. Corbin stared in horror as Ithril emerged, only it was not his friend. Gorvin stared in wonder and horror of his own, especially the latter, when the creature smiled, said the Doppelganger with grim satisfaction, “have we not a King to slay?” Gorvin’s smile was as horrid as that of the creature as they hastened off in search of the new King.

 

Garren found the Warder stiff and cold, drenched in the heavy dew of predawn; his glowing hand was bright in the gloom ere the sun’s rising. The beast came alive with a roar, ready to tear the intruder limb from limb. He shook himself, blinked in surprise, and then smiled wholeheartedly to see who it was that had wakened him, a man once more. The Warder grinned ruefully at his old friend, “it is not often I have to endure that.” He barked a laugh, “few are they that can boast that they have bested the Beast of the Mountain!”

Garren slapped him on the back and grinned in return, “though this is novel to you, most of the rest of us experience it on a far too regular basis. Not that it is ever pleasant, however. What happened?”

The Warder shook his head, “some upstart knight came looking for the Stone, I told him the search was futile but he insisted. When I still refused to help him, he took it amiss. He claimed to be one of the Rider’s get and had been promised the crown by some dark prophet or other and seems determined to get his due, no matter the cost. He had two newly sworn Messengers in tow; I doubt it will go well with them.”

A horrid shriek and a bitter chill suddenly rent the air, driving the pair to the ground; something within their very souls cried aloud in near despair and complete horror, sensing that something awful and unholy had been unleashed upon the earth. Garren stared at the Warder in dread, “what was that?”

The Warder shuddered as he hastened to his feet, “it can be but one thing, and if it is what I fear, then our new King might very well be doomed unless our Master sees fit to intercede Himself, for we are of no consequence to such a demon.”

Garren’s eyes were wide in horror, for he knew as well as his companion that it was a demon indeed and that they had no chance against so mighty a foe. But his Master had not raised up this boy merely to let him fall so soon. There would be a rescue, there must! He shuddered but tried to ignore these dark postulations and hastened after his friend, towards the source of the disquiet feeling. Uneager to find the fiend in its lair but unable to deny the sense of duty that drew them thither, for there was something they must accomplish in that awful place. With their unnatural speed, they found the abandoned tombs not long after sunrise and felt drawn to one in particular. From the feel of the place, this was where the Fiend found entrance into the mortal world but there was no trace of it or those who had welcomed it into a world otherwise physically denied it. The pair exchanged a grim look and entered the tomb.

A pile of discarded bones in one corner caught their eyes, as these were relatively fresh while all other remnants of the ancient dead were now little more than dust. They exchanged another grave look, but Garren stepped forth, radiant hand extended. Azure light engulfed the skeleton and soon it was clad in flesh once more. Ithril found himself suddenly looking up into their friendly faces and wanted to dance for joy. He settled with taking Garren’s hand and being drawn to his feet. He shuddered, “what was that thing? What did it do to me?”

Garren said grimly, “it is a thing of spirit, immortal and evil beyond comprehension, drawn into our reality at the behest of a fool who thinks to use it for his own gain. Mortals have no business meddling with things so far beyond our ken. It has clad itself in your likeness and used your blood to draw itself into our world.”

The Warder asked, “what of your friend?”

Ithril shivered, “he is still in company with the rogue who summoned the Fiend; they intend to take the crown.”

Garren looked grim indeed, “then let us pray for a miracle, for naught can we do against such a Foe!” They shared a grave look and hastened from that place; the Warder returned to his duties while Garren and Ithril rushed off to find the King’s party ere it was too late, not that they could do anything but carry a warning.

 

The Fiend put itself in charge of the party from the moment it emerged from the tomb and none dared gainsay it. The creature studied each member of the company as a bear studies a beehive. It frowned when its gaze settled on Corbin, snarled he to Gorvin, “what use have you for this wretch? Have you any idea what he is?”

Gorvin shrugged, “his friend proved useful in your case, I thought perhaps he might prove the same. We can kill him now if you wish.”

The Fiend studied the boy intently, “no, it matters not and he might yet prove useful.” His smile grew fiendish, “I have a better use for him, at least one far more amusing. Death is actually a boon to these piteous creatures and I would not grant him that could I help it. Rather let him be marked with my master’s own crest, let his pathetic lord see His sworn servant marked with His enemy’s brand!”

Corbin took a step back but the thing in Ithril’s skin leapt upon him like a striking snake and he felt something branded into the flesh over his heart as the creature touched him. The Fiend released him with a cruel laugh, as he stared down in horror at a snarling serpent burned into his skin. Corbin felt a wave of nausea wash over him and the men in the company drew back as if some evil aura surrounded him, which in fact it did. The Fiend hissed in delight, “there boy! You are marked for my master’s use and until that day, no one will ever feel easy in your presence and all will flee in terror have they the chance. You will be an outcast and a pariah among men all the rest of your days.” His smile broadened, “and I doubt that mark will sit well with either your own well-being or endear you to your colleagues.” Corbin lay where he had fallen and wept in horror and misery, praying for mercy and wondering what would come of him. They could not take away that which the Stone had imparted, could they?

They forced him to his feet and they set out with all speed, until the moon set and they were forced to rest for a few hours, but they were off again as soon as there was light enough to see. Corbin had never been more miserable or lonely, but somewhere deep within, he knew Whose he was and this brought him a Peace he could hardly begin to fathom. All he need do was trust and that he would do with all the strength that was left him, which wasn’t much, considering how physically ill that vile mark seemed to make him. Stumbling as he went, he pushed on as fast as his captors could make him.

 

Garren had not returned by the time the sun was up and the King was impatient to be off, suddenly uneasy in the shadow of the mountain. His remaining Messengers had the same urgent sense of foreboding and agreed wholeheartedly that they must away and that the Captain must catch up when he found the chance. The King said grimly as he mounted his horse, “where has he gone?”

Bayard said quietly, “he had some urgent quest to fulfill last night and will return as soon as he can.” He glanced around nervously but none were close enough to hear, “Sire, I have the uncanny feeling that something dreadful is intent upon your destruction and I believe we shall be powerless to stop it, even were we a thousand strong.” Kyan swallowed hard, climbed into his saddle, and ordered the party forward, agreeing fully with the young Messenger’s apprehension. So what was to be done about it? Grim were their thoughts that day and only reluctantly did they stop for the night, wishing to be as far from the mountain or whatever it had birthed as they could get, yet also knowing physical distance was no impediment to such a foe.

In the gloom of predawn, every heart in the camp would have stopped in terror were it physically possible. A shadow seemed to fall upon them all and their very thoughts froze in fear. It rushed into the King’s tent like a storm driven wind, snatched the King, and bore him just as suddenly into the dark before the dawn. The moment the creature was fled with its prisoner, a great wail of terror and despair arose from every mortal throat. Only one man, a grizzled, one-eyed soldier, seemed indifferent to the Fiend; he took up his sword and followed sedately after the fled horror.

Garren and Ithril hurried into the camp not a moment after, anguish and dread written in their faces and eyes. So horrified was the camp that not even the sentries challenged them upon their entry. They hastened to the King’s tent and found Kipril sitting upon the empty cot with a guilty grin on his face, but there was an uneasy light in his eyes. Hope at last gleamed in Garren’s eyes as he asked, “what has happened, lad?”

Kipril was on his feet in a moment, much relieved at the return of his master, said he all aflutter, “that thing?! What is it? Can it be beaten?” He shuddered in dread, “can it unmake a Messenger?”

Garren barked a laugh and then quieted his perturbed apprentice, “so that is the game is it? Where have you stashed his Majesty?” He smiled slightly, “Bayard won’t enjoy what is to come but it won’t be the first time either; he shall be no worse for wear.”

Kipril relaxed visibly and said, “we thought the King might benefit from spending some quality time with the lads in training for the Royal Guard.”

Garren beamed and quickly explained to the flummoxed Ithril what exactly had come to pass, said he, “let us keep this to ourselves until this Fiend is no longer a threat.”

The lads nodded eagerly and then their attention was drawn without, as a deep voice boomed, “I hereby lay claim to the throne!”

Garren rolled his eyes at such theatrics and withdrew from the tent to restore order to the camp and see what the intruder wanted. Gorvin stood in the midst of the camp with his minions about him, gloating within an inch of his life; none had the nerve or heart to challenge him, save the grim looking captain, whose mere presence was enough to snap the King’s party out of their astonishment and horror, if only to stare in curiosity from one to the other. Snapped Garren, “what right have you to claim anything? Rather you had best beg mercy, though there can be none in such a case, for there is but one price for what you have wrought. Your entire party is condemned to death!”

This was not the reception Gorvin had anticipated and he openly gaped at this insolent fool who refused to be cowed, even after such a demonstration of his power. Growled he, “who are you to treat with me?”

Garren smiled grimly, his sword in hand, “I do not treat with you, don’t be ridiculous! There shall be neither mercy nor quarter given. I suggest you all make peace with your Maker and prepare to face the doom prescribed for such dealings!”

Gorvin snarled in answer and flung himself upon the upstart Captain, which roused both the King’s party and his own vile minions into action, the latter knowing themselves doomed men if they lost and being rather unhinged by their master’s fell dealings, they were fearsome foes indeed. But they were far outnumbered and only two of the beleaguered party survived, and that only by raising their hands and withdrawing bodily from the fray; Gorvin was wounded but not mortally so, he lay clutching his side and snarling imprecations at Garren, who stood above him, sword at the ready. Then all were driven trembling to their knees by a brilliant flash of light and an all-consuming darkness. When the birds resumed their singing and their hearts again began to beat, the shadow that lay heavy upon them all was suddenly lifted. Garren caught the eyes of Ithril and Kipril, and they seemed to twinkle in very joy, ‘a miracle indeed!’ For the Fiend was undone, though none ever saw the grizzled soldier after or remembered seeing him before.

Then did the King step forth to pass judgment upon the surviving villains. Gorvin snarled and hissed like a cornered cat and was summarily hung for his fell dealings. The two lesser minions were brought forth, though even the most seasoned soldiers seemed uneasy in the presence of the younger. Even the Messengers drew back at the aura of evil that surrounded the boy, who seemed quite ill besides. Ithril gaped, “Corbin! What is wrong?”

The lad was on his knees beside the other prisoner before the King, said he tremulously, “that thing…it marked me somehow…”

Garren turned grim eyes to Ithril, “is this the other the Warder spoke of?” Ithril nodded and Garren stepped towards the foul feeling lad and gently drew back the collar of his tunic, just above the heart. He gasped, “marked indeed! This is a horror and an affront!” He asked the boy gravely, “you did not willingly take this mark upon yourself?”

The boy shook his head adamantly, his eyes pleading to be believed. Garren nodded stonily, “then there is yet hope for you.” He shuddered, “there is but one way to be rid of such a mark, and as you are condemned already, I do not see any hindrance in its removal.”

Ithril gasped, “you will still pass sentence upon him, as if he were a willing partaker in this rogue’s vile witchery?”

Garren said gravely, “all such knowledge must pass from the earth. It was forbidden ages ago and was nearly the end of mankind then, would you risk such again?” He smiled ironically, “besides, it is the only way to remove that horrid mark from his person. He does not belong to the dark but to our Master and this we shall soon prove.” He turned to the King, “would you question them further, Majesty?”

Kyan eyed the pair grimly, Corbin with no little pity, said he, “let us be done with this regrettable business.” He eyed the unnamed survivor, “have you any last words? Why did you refrain from fighting when all your companions chose to die in battle?”

The bandit nervously glanced from the ground to the King and back again, saying with a shrug, “well Highness, I never felt right about what my late master intended, but a man needs to make a living you understand, though it seems to have cost me my life at that.” He smiled wanly at the irony and continued, “I know I must die for my involvement in such foul schemes, unwitting as it was, but might I ask a favor of you, Highness? Is it too much to ask that I might seek that Stone my master was so intent on finding and meet my end there? It calls to me somehow you see, and I would find it ere the end, if I might.”

The King smiled slightly and turned questioning eyes to Garren, who wore a speculative look, “it should be possible, Sire.”

The King nodded and turned back to the man, saying, “I grant you a reprieve of a day and a night. Seek the Stone if you would, but know that regardless of what you do or whither you wander, at the appointed time, you shall drop dead where you stand. Will that suffice?”

The man nodded eagerly and the King raised his hand, its blue light reflected in the astonished man’s eyes. The King touched it to the man’s heart and felt it throb in answer. It would cease its beating exactly one day hence, allowing the man his dying wish and satisfying justice therewith. The man stood, bowed, and said in farewell, “thank you Majesty, your wisdom and grace are an example to us all. May the Master bless and prolong your reign.” He vanished from the camp in search of the Stone, joyful even in the face of death, but before he dashed off, Garren drew him aside and quietly whispered in his ear. He smiled and nodded in thanks, and fled forthwith.

The King turned sad eyes upon Corbin, “I am sorry it has come to this. Have you a preferred means of death?”

The boy actually smiled, though obviously miserable, “whatever the means Highness, I welcome it.”

The King exchanged a questioning look with Garren, who nodded solemnly. Said the King quietly, again raising his radiant hand, “will this suffice?”

Corbin nodded and did not flinch back as the King placed his hand over the boy’s heart. The light penetrated to his very core and he felt his heart throbbing in time with the pulsing light. His eyes widened momentarily in surprise as he inhaled sharply and then slumped forward. The light engulfed the boy and grew too bright to look upon for a moment and then faded as the King withdrew his hand. Corbin lifted his head and looked about in wonder, the still gaping front of his tunic revealing a rampant silver unicorn rather than a snarling serpent. The others exchanged a wondering look and Ithril gaped, “that’s it?”

Garren clapped him on the back, “aye lad, no one said it need be drawn out and gruesome.” He frowned thoughtfully, “I wonder where Bayard has gotten to? I suppose he shall turn up in good time. For all I know he’s fallen into another adventure.”

Corbin stood and exchanged an eager smile with his comrades and then bowed solemnly to the King, “thank you, Highness.”

Kyan blinked, still overawed by his own actions this day, never having dreamt he would one day pass sentence on a man nor carry out justice with his own hand, but such was the prerogative of the King. He smiled awkwardly, even more astonished that the condemned would actually thank him for meting out justice. Garren laughed heartily at their confounded looks and soon all were lost to relieved mirth for some time thereafter. At last the King motioned them to silence and suggested that they had best see about putting the camp in order and getting under way. The bandits were duly buried, the King’s followers heartened to see him hale and whole in their midst, and soon enough the party set forth. At Garren’s suggestion, Corbin now wore a slightly different face, that he not arouse uneasy questions amongst those who might recognize him as a late member of Gorvin’s party, as all such were supposedly buried near their former campsite.

 

One moment Bayard, guised like the King, was chatting with Kipril in the Royal tent and the next, he was overwhelmed by utter darkness. When next he was aware of anything but a cold, fathomless night, he heard a mocking voice saying, “well little King, what shall come of you now? How fits your crown? Where is the Master to whom you have sworn yourself? Shall you not die ere your reign begins and another take your throne? Is not all futile? Even now will you beg mercy?”

Bayard stared into those horrid eyes and knew there was no mercy therein. The creature looked vaguely like one of the many lads that had answered the call to witness the King’s advent, but this creature was no mortal man. He could not answer, even had he words, for the creature nearly crushed his throat in its immovable grasp and even breathing was difficult. His gaze wandered idly as he pondered what, if anything, he could do in this dire situation; he thought the creature must have secreted himself in some sort of tomb or cave. He smiled at the irony, at least he might have a proper interment this time.

The Fiend hissed at his smile, “what is so amusing, wretch? Will you acquiesce?”

A rumble of grim laughter filled the little tomb and both turned to look at this unexpected sound, as a one eyed, unshaven soldier standing in the doorway said with ill-suppressed mirth, “what have you there?”

The Fiend snarled, “be gone! He is mine by right of blood! I will do with him as I please!”

The soldier shrugged and loosed his sword, “that well may be but you cannot go traipsing about in the mortal world in this stolen form.” He hefted the weapon, “I am here to rectify that.”

The Fiend turned an infuriated look upon the intruder and then glared anew at Bayard, “why does he care so little about your fate?”

Bayard could no longer hide his own smile and the creature knew he had been had. He flung the imposter against the far wall with such force that nearly every bone in his body broke with the impact. For a moment, Bayard was aware of a light emanating from the grizzled soldier so radiant that he might well have gone blind had not death seized him the next instant. Unseen by any mortal eye, the radiant being struck at his foe, which had become a shadow black enough to consume all light, all light except this awful display, for the next moment the shade howled in fury and vanished physically from the mortal sphere. The radiant creature, an old soldier once more, smiled to himself, sheathed his blade, and whistled tunelessly as he withdrew from the tomb. He nodded cheerily at the Warder of the Stone as he came rushing down the hill, all-aflutter, freezing the man in his tracks. He blinked and stared and blinked again.

The old soldier smiled in amusement, gave the astonished man another nod, and continued on his way, saying as he went, “you’ll find your lad within, no worse for wear I should think.” Then he vanished into the sudden brilliance as the sun crested the rise.

The flummoxed Warder stared at the new risen sun in wonder, perplexed but inexplicably overjoyed for a moment. Then he shook himself and hastened into the tomb upon his own quest. A furtive shadow followed unseen in his wake. He found the boy within, a limp heap of crushed humanity with a look of sheer awe frozen upon his face. The Warder smiled in spite of himself and laid a hand upon the lad’s breast. An answering blue radiance danced over the boy’s person, mending broken bones and setting his heart throbbing once more. He drew a deep breath and his staring eyes blinked, holding life anew. The Warder smiled and drew the lad to his feet.

But ere any word was spoken, a timid but demanding voice quavered, “well met necromancer, indeed well met! You are just the man my master has sent me to find. Now if you do not mind, I have a few questions pertaining to your craft.”

The pair of Messengers studied the birdlike, colorless fellow that skulked just inside the doorway, trembling in eagerness and terror both. They exchanged an amused grin, and then the Warder said not ungently, “well lad, I must be off. I have other pressing business but you can entertain our guest and answer his questions, I am sure.” He gave Bayard a far too amused smile at his predicament and strode from the tomb without a backwards glance.

The timid little man stepped aside to let him pass, not daring to impede such a personage but then turned eager eyes upon Bayard, said he, “now demon, do as your master bade thee!”

Bayard blinked and then smiled wanly at the man’s assumption, said he, “you know not of what you speak sir, but I shall answer you at your leisure, but first let us seek a place less redolent of death and darkness. The sun is astir and the air fresh without.”

Tuttle shrugged indifferently, as if it mattered not in the least whither this interview took place, but stepped aside and allowed Bayard to precede him out into the brightening day. The boy glanced about at the light and life around him and basked for a moment in the sheer wonder of it all. At last, he turned back to his curious companion and asked, “who are you, who is your master, and what is this grim task he has set you?”

The imperious but twitchy Tuttle had settled himself on a nearby stone, notebook and pen in hand, his legs precisely crossed. Said he in some astonishment, “it is you who are bidden to speak Demon. Now do as your master bids!”

Bayard’s smile deepened as he took in the ironic scene, the man’s fustiness, and his dedication to his cause, no matter how bizarre or dangerous. The boy crossed his arms and said steadily, “I am no demon, sir, simply a man like yourself. And neither am I beholden to speak of certain matters to you if I do not wish it, rather I will tell you all you wish to hear but I would beg a little civility in recompense. Again, I ask who you are and what you wish?”

The man studied him for a time, still rather puzzled by the events of the morning, but intrigued by the vision before him. He had seen the creature roused from the dead, yet he felt far more akin to a mortal man than to any creature that was used to roaming the vales beyond time. “I am not,” said he at last in a thoughtful, ponderous voice, “prone to believing, as some do, in the immortality of the mortal soul. I admit there well may be creatures beyond our comprehension, creatures not trapped within this mortal sphere, of which we can know little or nothing about, to whom we can be but ants, but I do not believe a man continues to exist in any form after death. Therefore you cannot be a man. Thus, you must be, as I have rightly called you, a demon or other creature from beyond my own reality.”

Bayard laughed outright at this preposterous statement, for the proof was before the man’s very eyes yet even so he refused to see it, rather depending on his own excuses to rationalize the impossible. Just because one did not believe something in no way made it less possible or less true. The man seemed rather affronted at this outburst but it also made him wonder anew if a demon or other dweller from regions beyond the mortal stars would act in such a perfunctory manner, as if he were nothing but an impetuous boy! Controlling his mirth, the boy quipped, “now sir, you have yet to answer my questions. While your own metaphysics are fascinating, if flawed, you have yet to tell me of your quest.”

The man sighed as a martyr might, and at last gave in to the demands of the uncooperative boy. It was not his habit to answer questions from anyone but his master, it was the place of all lesser beings to answer immediately to his own demands for information, but he must placate the demon if he was to have his due, so placate he would, said he as one under dire strain, “my master is a great lord in a distant province and I am his Secretary. He has tasked me with a most important task, upon which his life and the fate of his only child might very well depend. I came to this Haunted Mountain in hopes of discovering the means of vanquishing or at least eluding death for as long as mortally possible. His Lordship seems to have managed it and my master would know the means to that end. You, though I would have much preferred your master the necromancer, may prove an excellent source of information, or so I hope.”

Bayard shuddered, “have you any idea the cost of what you propose? Is your master so desperate for such power that he would indulge in blood magic to obtain his goal?”

Master Tuttle paled, quite a feat for one already devoid of much color, and said quietly, “I can but gain the information for my esteemed master, the use he makes of it is his own affair.”

Bayard shook his head grimly, “then come let us speak at length with some who have glimpsed those far shores whose existence you doubt.”

The prim little secretary rose fluidly and said with a reproving sniff, “my personal beliefs have nothing to do with the matter, I am on a fact finding mission for my master and I must record all I find, whether I agree with it or not. Lead on demon, I would speak to these knowledgeable beings you boast of.”

Bayard grinned wryly and took a few steps towards the cottage that stood not far from the tombs. Tuttle blinked in astonishment, for none lived on the Haunted mountain and he was quite certain there had not been a cottage standing there a moment before. He mastered himself and followed the irksome demon into the inexplicable structure. The boy did not bother to knock but walked straight into the house, as if it were his grandmother’s own quaint abode. Tuttle shook his head at this atrocious breach of protocol but ghosted silently after. Two men of indeterminable age sat at their leisure in the main room of the cottage, as if awaiting this very occurrence. Bayard tossed them a salute; the man on the left answered with a quick nod while the other rose so abruptly his chair fell over with the violence of his rising. He rushed forward, greeted the boy exuberantly, and eyed the stranger curiously. The boy hastened off to make tea, leaving Tuttle alone with the pair, both studying him as if they had never beheld a secretary before.

At last, the man who had greeted the boy with such warmth, said, “well, you had best have a seat then while the lad sees to the refreshments. How can we be of service?”

Tuttle cleared his throat and drew himself up to his rather insignificant height while trying to appear imperious, said he though failing utterly, “the demon here thinks you can aid me in my quest. You see, my master wishes to discover how his Lordship has evaded death all these years. His very life and that of his maiden daughter depend upon my success in this matter.”

The pair exchanged an amused grin at the mention of Bayard’s new pseudonym but it turned to horror as the man finished. Master Tuttle was not amused, “what is so distressing about my quest?”

Bren shook his head grimly, “lad, have you any idea what it is you ask?” He glanced momentarily in the direction of the boy, who was still readying the tea, “or the cost of such knowledge?”

Tuttle shook his head in exasperation, “my master must judge the cost for himself! It is the only way to save his daughter from the Rider’s vile clutches and himself from an untimely grave.”

Bren relaxed visibly at this, “is that all? Have you not heard? His Lordship, his fell Beast, and the Rider are all of them dead! Whatever their vile schemes for your master and his, they can be of no account any longer. As to his untimely death, it is not for mortal men to determine the length of their days upon the earth; each of us must yield to death in our turn.”

Tuttle at last accepted a seat, or rather fell into the nearest available chair in shock and relief, whispered he as the boy brought in the tea, “can it be?”

Bren began helping himself and said with a smile, “aye lad, that it is. We each had our part in his undoing.”

Bayard had only heard part of the conversation, but seeing the shock on Tuttle’s face, he quickly handed him a cup of tea, which he downed in one gulp then Bayard promptly refilled. Stuttered he at last, “you are then Knights of renown and great power?”

The three exchanged a very amused grin, then Bren said, “nay lad, we are just men, like you. It was blood magic that kept his Lordship in the prime of health and maintained his Beast, but it was willing blood that ended his tyranny.”

The Secretary, paler than ever, tried to sit primly in his chair but only managed a spineless slump, said he, “blood?”

Bayard grinned, “I told you these gentlemen were just the people to help you in your search for such information, for they have experienced it first hand.” His smile vanished, “as have I.”

Bren shook his head, “that is the cost of evading death. Would your master have the blood of such as we on his hands? Is it worth the cost?”

Master Tuttle regained a trace of his composure in defense of his master’s honor, “his main concern was the safety of his daughter, whom the Rider was to claim as his bride, if ever the mood took him. He suffers from some wasting disease of the lungs and if he must succumb to the inevitable, he is at peace with that, but feared for his daughter once he was gone. He will not shed the blood of innocents to avoid the fate common to all men.”

Bren nodded and said with a slight smile, “very good lad, very good, then perhaps we can be of assistance to you and your master. But what of you?”

The Secretary was taken aback, “me? What of me?”

Bren grinned like a madman, “you might be just a gatherer of information, but you are possessed of a soul as much as your master, what is to come of that? You can’t go poking into such philosophical details without wondering about your own destiny now, can you?”

Tuttle was decidedly uncomfortable and even adjusted his collar, hoping it would make this tight, warm feeling go away, but it only reinforced his palpable anxiety for all those watching. Bayard came to his rescue, “Master Tuttle is a fervent skeptic when it comes to all such claims, despite all proofs to the contrary.”

Tuttle gave him a grateful look for setting his feet once more upon solid ground, said he with an insipid laugh, “that is it precisely and I would beg that you not pester me about the details. I shall gather the requested data for my master and then be on my way.”

Bren shrugged, “do as you like lad, no one shall force you to believe anything you would rather not. I just thought you might be curious, that’s all.”

Tuttle cleared his throat and seemed rather relieved, “I thank you for your concerns, but I assure you, they are quite unnecessary. I am quite content with my lot and am merely curious on my master’s behalf.”

Just then there came a timid knock at the door. Bayard glanced at the Captain and his Aide, they shrugged and he hastened to open it. Without stood a rascally looking man with a look of wild glee on his face, mixed with no little fear. Said he without preamble, “I was bidden here in quest for the Stone.”

Bayard frowned slightly at this uncanny request but stepped aside to let the man in. It was not lost upon him that a wooded glade lay without with the sun on the rise, rather than treeless, rocky slopes. Without hesitation, the man rattled off his entire tale and ended with, “and there is no way I can ascend the mountain and find the Stone ere the appointed time.”

Bren grinned, “that is why you were directed here lad. Time does no pass within as it does in the outer world nor is this cottage fixed within place or time. It appears when and where it is needed. When you feel it is time to be moving on, you’ll have more than enough time to find that which you seek and do there what you must.” He glanced curiously at the Secretary, who gaped in disbelief at the impossible tale, and then said with a smile, “in fact, I think you shall not go alone. The lad can show you whither lies your quarry while Master Tuttle may find it an intriguing bit of information to pass along to his Lord. You can even ride if you wish it.”

The man collapsed in yet another chair, overwhelmed with joy. He gratefully took a cup of tea and chatted with the Captain and Guyare as if he had known them all his life. Bayard slipped outside to see if he could scrounge up those horses the Captain insisted upon while Tuttle sat wide-eyed, listening to the others talk. Bayard soon returned and during a lull in the conversation, interjected, “we can leave whenever you are ready, sir.”

The man stood up, shook hands gratefully all around, and followed the lad out into the afternoon sun, starting when he saw they stood on a forsaken mountainside rather than in a young forest; Tuttle followed silently after, frowning in perplexity. They both gaped at the trio of horses standing there, awaiting their pleasure. The former rogue shrugged, grinned, and climbed aback the nearest beast, said he, “I’ve seen many a strange thing in the last few days, what is one more?”

Tuttle frowned the more, but climbed into his own saddle and Bayard followed suit. They turned the horses and followed Bayard as he skirted the mountain, drawn inexorably to the Stone. The sky clouded over and the wind came up, gusting cold and mournful in the rising gloom of the fading afternoon. As full dark crept upon them, Bayard drew rein on a rise looking down into a mist bound vale. Said he, as his companions drew up alongside him, “below lies the Stone. You must proceed alone and meet there what fate awaits you. We will bide here, awaiting your return.”

Tuttle made to protest, wanting to witness first hand the powers of this mythic Stone, but there was such a look of grave solemnity in the boy’s eyes that he dared not voice his consternation. The terrified scoundrel nodded grimly, vacated his saddle, and made his stumbling way into the valley, soon obscured by the darkness and fog. Tuttle fretted at last, “so we will just sit here in the dark and wait to see if he ever comes forth?”

Bayard turned stony eyes upon him, “you may do as you wish Master Secretary, but my orders are clear.”

“Orders!” scoffed the little man, “under whose banner do you ride then? Who can conquer death? Who can give the dead new life?”

Bayard said quietly, “He who shed His blood upon that Stone to spare ours. The Maker of Life Himself.”

Tuttle smiled coldly, “tales, merely tales to bring comfort to those who are not strong enough to face the harshness of reality.”

Bayard wished to laugh aloud but dared not offend his companion so grievously, said he with fervent joy, “tales indeed, but still true. And yes, they are a comfort to those of us who find this grim, despairing world a place unfit for mortal men, for it is unfit and was never meant to be this way, but our own folly has rendered it thus. He has opened the door into a world that is far more a home for our estranged race, we need only go in.” Tuttle’s only response was to sniff in derision. They sat their saddles and waited.

The clouds dispersed with the dawn, and as the first wan grey fingers of morning crept into the vale, a silent and astonished figure crawled up the hillside to where the silent watchers awaited him. Bayard dismounted and Tuttle likewise when they saw him coming, hurrying down the slope to meet him. As the sun’s bright head rose at last above a distant ridge, the man ceased his travails, gave Bayard a last wry smile, and slumped unmoving in the heather. The pair continued their descent and found the man dead where he lay, the King’s sentence having come to fulfillment.

Tuttle shook his head scornfully and said, “is this then your answer? The man is dead! What did he hope to find upon your accursed Stone?”

Bayard smiled knowingly, “hope itself. Now are you fully content the man is dead and shall move no more? That he might not again draw breath of his own accord?”

“What are you babbling about?” said Tuttle, his normal composure shaken rather dreadfully by recent events. He had hoped for far more from a night’s watching than a corpse at his feet. Sighed he, “of course he is dead! Oh!”

A familiar azure light filled the boy’s palm and sparkled in his eyes as he knelt beside the dead man and placed a glowing hand over the former rogue’s heart. The dead organ throbbed joyously in answer and the man sighed as one waking from a deep sleep. He blinked up at the boy, a joyous smile on his face. He sat up, stretched, and stood as if nothing untoward had happened. Tuttle stood gaping like a fish, having already forgotten that this was not the first such demonstration he had witnessed. The man gave them a proper salute, hastened up the hill, and was soon in his saddle and turning his horse, said he, “I must be off then, duty you know. Thanks again lad.” He turned the beast and vanished over the rise.

Tuttle gave Bayard an unreadable look but muttered, “I have seen enough demon, let us to my master and we shall see what he makes of all this.” Bayard smiled his agreement and they too were soon in their saddles and off to their next adventure.

 

The journey was interminable, at least as far as Tuttle was concerned; Bayard seemed indifferent to such pithy mortal concerns as boredom and a disquiet heart. He had what his master sought, at least this news of his Lordship should ease his troubled mind. But what of all the uncanny things he had seen and heard in the last few days? No matter how he tried to console himself, the so-called demon was no such thing, though Tuttle continued to call him that out of sheer habit, and it seemed to irk the usually unflappable boy, which Tuttle secretly enjoyed. It was about the only thing he enjoyed on that foray, for his heart was uneasy within him and his mind far worse. When they finally reached the great house of his master some weeks later, he was overjoyed with relief, for he feared for his sanity or at least his rationality, which he mistakenly thought were the same thing.

They were ushered immediately into the presence of the bedridden old man, who coughed up blood every so often during the ensuing interview but wiped it away as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. He was overjoyed to hear that his vile Lordship and his fell servants were no more and to Tuttle’s great perplexity, enthralled by Bayard’s full telling of the tale. At last, the man slumped back against the headboard and sighed, “ah, that I were young again, but it cannot and shall not be. At least I shall die in peace with no worries over my daughter’s future.” He turned a cunning eye upon his Secretary, who took an uneasy step backward at the eagerness burning therein, and gave his orders, which left the man gaping anew. The older man laughed heartily, which threw him into a bout of coughing, for he had never seen poor Tuttle so flabbergasted. Bayard grinned like the imp he was. They were then excused from the invalid’s quarters that he might speak with his daughter alone.

Bayard followed Tuttle into the unoccupied library and the man turned upon him immediately, “this is all your fault!”

Bayard grinned, “not mine, my Master’s and even your own.”

Tuttle huffed, “he shall never have me! I will obey my master’s dying wish, because it is just that, but it does not mean I approve of it in the least!” Bayard smiled the more.

 

The next day, it was discovered that the master of the house was gone; not dead but physically unaccounted for, vanished into thin air it seemed. Tuttle muttered darkly about fell deeds and curiosity being a man’s undoing but there was nothing to do but go forward as the man had directed. None had expected him to live much longer but who had imagined that one morning all would awake to simply find him gone? Tuttle snarled in agitation, another severe and telling breach in his usually stoic demeanor, “this is all your fault; what has come of my master?”

Bayard smiled like a guilty child, but would only shrug and say, “I have my theories, but they are unfounded and only speculation. It is none of my doing, but something your master has long set his heart upon. Perhaps you will see him again one day, perhaps.”

Master Tuttle hardly liked the insolent words of the upstart youth and would have set the pup down there and then, but his master’s dying wish, for there could be no other name for it whatever betide, held him firm. They would proceed as they must. He smiled grimly, at least he would be in charge of the expedition and the lad would have to abide by that at least. Said he with a sigh, “we shall start off as soon as we may, the sooner begun the sooner done, I say.” The boy nodded cheerily, as if he had suggested a merry trip into the village to procure sweets rather than liquidating all his master’s assets and setting forth on a cross country expedition with a vulnerable maiden in their midst and laden with wealth galore, but so it was.

The Secretary called the Steward, Housekeeper, and other upper servants to him and told of what was to come, that the entire estate was to be converted to fluid wealth as soon as may be. They were at first aghast at the thought, but Tuttle assured them that some one or other of their wealthy and powerful neighbors would no doubt take on the estate and the balance of the servants, thus ensuring a place for those who remained behind. After giving them their orders on the dispersal of the household and their part in it, he called the Captain of the Guard to him. The man listened patiently, seemed far more eager than he ought, and then nodded thoughtfully, “it can be done, Sir, but it will be dangerous, especially with the lady and all that treasure, but it can be done. I can speak for a dozen of my lads, they have nothing holding them here, but the rest are family men Sir, and not apt to leave all behind to seek an unknown King. I’ll see if I can’t acquire a few more faithful swords ere we depart however.”

The Secretary nodded gravely, distractedly dismissed the man, and then turned his attention to his own myriad duties. The captain watched him for a few moments, a small, knowing smile on his face, before he vanished about his own duties, the first of which was apprising the men under his command of the upcoming adventure and seeing who wished to accompany them. He barely missed colliding with a boy who came barreling down the hallway in search of the Secretary, the lad mumbled his apologies but barely glanced at the man he had very nearly trampled before vanishing around the corner into Tuttle’s office. The boy had not had a good look at the captain, but the captain had seen enough of the lad to deepen his smile in anticipation of the coming journey. Things were afoot indeed!

Within a few days, a miracle that even Tuttle could not deny, matters were settled to everyone’s satisfaction. A wealthy neighbor bought the entire estate and intended to settle one of his sons in place of the errant lord and was content to keep any of the staff that would not be following Tuttle on his perilous and hare-brained misadventure. As the captain had predicted, only a dozen of the younger guardsmen had volunteered to go along, leaving the party quite vulnerable to any brigands or thieves that might wish to make a nuisance of themselves along the way. Her ladyship was quite eager to go, having nothing any longer holding her at home now that her father had gone missing, an incident that did not seem to concern her in the least, rather she seemed quite amused by the whole situation. She was also eager to have as much of an adventure as any nobly born lass might ever hope to have: to cross uncounted miles through mysterious lands as the potential bride of an upstart King with a dowry greater than the riches of many a Kingdom was adventure indeed! She had always loved the old stories and now she was about to be in one.

At last, the party was assembled in the courtyard of the great house just prior to their grand departure and even Tuttle was impressed. They had accomplished much in short order and the company was splendid enough to suit even his fussy tastes; if only it didn’t attract bandits, but traveling that far with so many and so much could hardly be done in secret or guised as penniless gypsies. Instead, they hoped the grandeur of the party was enough to discourage any would-be brigands and gain them safe passage to wherever it was the King intended to settle himself. Tuttle mounted his horse and led the party out into the waxing day; they eagerly followed his lead, those left behind wishing them a teary and warm farewell.

Once they were well on their way, and had settled into a suitable order and pace, Tuttle made his rounds of the company to see that all was in good order. Her ladyship was doing well and much enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, though her maidens complained bitterly that it would ruin her complexion, if not their own. Tuttle smirked at their fastidiousness, wondering why he could suddenly consider such a trifle so amusing when a fortnight prior he would have been just as distressed, if not more so. The thought unsettled him enough that he urged his horse forward to continue his rounds and distract himself thereby.

He spoke next with the Captain, said the Secretary in some surprise, “you told me you had a dozen men but here I see twice their number! Well done sir, well done!” He frowned, “are they trustworthy? You did not have much time to find reliable men after all.”

Captain Benigan laughed, “this is not of my doing, Sir. Rather it is that lad that the master has placed as second in command. They are his handiwork and you won’t find a more trustworthy man alive, not that they are truly men for that matter.” Tuttle gave him a perplexed look, at which the captain could only laugh and point him in the direction of the offending Bayard for further explanation.

The Secretary rode up to his unwelcome Second and said, “what is the captain blathering about? He says these new recruits to the guard are not really men after all. What nonsense is this?”

Bayard looked thoughtfully at his companion, “so the captain is aware that half his minions are not what they seem?” He studied the man from a distance; Benigan smiled broadly in reply. Bayard had spent little time with the captain in the past few days, so preoccupied with other preparations was he, but perhaps he should redress this oversight, for the man seemed observant, honorable, and wise from the few brief interactions they had had and the things others said of him. He turned his attention back to the impatient Tuttle, “and the captain is not unnerved by his observations?”

Tuttle frowned and said, “he seems far more amused by the whole affair, of which I’d like to form my own opinion but I know little enough of the matter.” He skewered the boy with an accusatory look.

Bayard grinned and said, “you recall the horses we rode away from a particular cottage? The beast in fact you still ride.”

The Secretary glanced at the animal and inadvertently smiled, recalling his fondness for the beast, said he, “I rather wondered where you had acquired such a fine beast on such short notice.”

The boy laughed openly, “he is wrought of nothing but mist and moonbeams as it were. Perhaps he is such a fine animal because he lacks the worst habits of a natural born horse. Your new guardsmen are phantasms of similar make. They have no mind or soul or heart or whatever you would call it, but merely mimic the movements and actions of mortal men. They are also completely useless in our defense, but I hope their presence will dissuade a few would-be brigands upon the way.”

Tuttle gaped, “and the captain is content with this knowledge?”

Bayard grinned, “I have no idea, I shall speak with him at length upon the matter when I have the chance. I can dismiss them with a thought if you would prefer. You have not found your horse amiss perchance?”

He glanced down uneasily at the beast upon which he sat and shuddered, perhaps it was best to let the boy indulge in his uncanny undertakings, if only to ease the journey and keep the Lady safe. He grated, “very well, just see that they do not unnerve the others in the party.” Bayard bowed his head and turned his horse, in search of the captain.

The lad had not ridden three paces when he let out an anguished cry and slumped in his saddle, barely maintaining his seat, a black arrow buried in his flank. The captain had the guardsmen arrayed around the lady in a heartbeat while the rest of the party drew together and fingered their belt knives and other minor weapons nervously, but no further attack came. Two scouts sent out in pursuit of the assassin returned shaking their heads, the brush was thick and impenetrable, they would spend days in pursuit of the offender to no avail, but thankfully there was also no sign of a sizable force waiting to ambush them either. Tuttle nodded gravely, “then we had best press on.” He turned questioning eyes to the captain, who nodded and then to Bayard, who was hunched in his saddle with pain in his eyes, but he nodded tersely and cast aside the offending shaft. He was wounded but not grievously. The captain watched him the rest of the day and shook his head grimly from time to time, wondering what fell weapon could injure the boy thus.

They pressed hard for the balance of the day to put what distance they could between themselves and any possible assailants; Bayard keenly felt every jolting step his horse took. As the light failed, they made camp and set the watch, only then did he withdraw to the semi-private tent he would share with the Secretary, in hopes of healing himself. The arrow had been easy enough to remove and the wound was neither severe nor deep, but it stank of death and decay already, oozing viscous black pus that he had no wish to touch. He tried touching the wound with his glowing fingers but only managed to shrink it marginally; it was no mortal wound that would have healed instantly with such treatment, rather it was some fell working of evil strong enough to resist the very light of his Master. He had tried covertly touching it with the azure radiance as they rode, but this was the first time he could try without fear of anyone inadvertently seeing, but there was nothing much to see. He smiled grimly, perhaps this was the worst his enemies could contrive: letting him melt into a viscous black ooze. He barked a laugh but there was no heart in it, the wound ached too much.

He looked up into the grim eyes of the Captain, who was standing unannounced halfway in the tent flap, studying the boy’s exposed flank and the hideous wound therein. Said Benigan in some surprise, “I have heard of such weapons but never have I personally seen their results. The making of them is costly and horrid indeed, thus the target is never an idle one. Someone wants you out of the way lad, and badly. Had you been a mortal man, you would have already succumbed to the poison and be no more than a black puddle on the road, eager to infect any fool enough to touch it or even pass by.”

Bayard shuddered, “I can’t heal it.”

The man shook his head grimly, “no one can, there is but one option and what remains afterwards must be burned.”

The boy nodded in concurrence, then caught the man’s gaze, frowning in perplexity, “who are you? How do you know so much about these matters and why are you not unnerved to know that half your guardsmen are other than they seem?”

The man grinned and unlaced the top of his tunic, revealing a rampant silver unicorn over his heart. Just then Tuttle barged in, pushing the man brusquely aside in his haste. He frowned at the captain loitering in his supposedly private quarters and then glared at the boy, only then noticing the festering wound. He turned a ghastly shade of green, a poor choice of hue for one with a usually drab and colorless complexion, said he aghast, “what is that?”

The boy exchanged a pained look with the captain, who was at that moment lacing up his shirt for some reason the Secretary could not fathom, and then Bayard replied, “it is the arrow wound.”

Master Tuttle shook his head adamantly, “it cannot be gangrenous already!”

The captain shook his head, “I will attend to the lad Master Tuttle, if you would be kind enough to give us some privacy?”

The irate Secretary turned on the captain, “this is my tent and I will remind you who is in command of this ill-advised expedition!”

The captain did not seem intimidated in the least, said he stonily, “I acknowledge that this is your tent and that you are in charge of this party, but this is a private matter between the boy and myself. Should it not be addressed promptly, the welfare of the entire company will be at stake. Now be so kind as to withdraw and stoke up the fire as much as possible, I shall shortly need to burn something rather dreadful and dangerous.”

Tuttle trembled at the gravity in the man’s voice but he would not be gainsaid, this was his tent after all! What could they have to hide that the commander of the expedition should be unaware of? No, he would stay and see that all was well within his demesne. The captain saw the stubborn set of his jaw and the glint in his eye, sighing said he, “at least have a servant stir up the fire and have an expendable blanket or sheet brought here at once.”

There was nothing the man enjoyed more than giving orders, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had just been ordered by an underling to give them, so he did just that. As soon as all was ready, Tuttle asked curiously, “what are you up to?”

The captain grinned sardonically, “you yet have time to leave Sir, I know your abhorrence for anything even remotely supernatural. That wound will only grow worse, as you can see it has become more hideous in just the last few minutes. Eventually it will consume the boy utterly and try to infect any and all within its reach. It must be burned and soon!”

Tuttle gaped, “what of the boy.”

Benigan smiled grimly, “he’ll have to be unmade.”

The Secretary squawked and turned horrified eyes upon the boy, “and you are fine with this?”

Bayard shrugged but grimaced in pain as his wound objected to even that minor movement, “it shall not be the first time. You do not have to watch.” He turned pleading eyes to the senior Messenger, who nodded and knelt beside the stricken lad.

Tuttle could not leave, though whether out of morbid curiosity or because he would not be so easily driven from his own tent, he could not say. He gaped when the captain’s hand suddenly glowed blue, mourned he, “not you too! Has the whole world gone mad?”

Benigan gave him an amused grin over his shoulder, said he, “I have been in this service for as long as you have known me; I’ll tell you all the tale once I have seen to the boy.” The Captain turned back to the lad, Tuttle’s eyes threatened to fall from their sockets if they grew any wider, and as he touched his glowing hand to the boy’s heart, the Secretary gasped. The light spread over Bayard’s entire being, save the oozing wound, and the next moment the boy was gone, leaving only a black stain upon the blanket, which the captain promptly bundled up and cast into the fire outside the tent. It belched forth a horrid black smoke but no more would it threaten anyone within the camp.

Said Tuttle rather breathlessly, “what has come of the boy?”

The captain grinned, “he’s about somewhere, he’ll likely turn up ere morning. If you are impatient, you can go wander about in the mist by the creek, that is the most likely place you’ll find him.”

The Secretary grumbled, only a hint of his concern showing, “I will not wait about and catch my death for his convenience. He can hie himself back when it pleases him but I won’t wait on anyone’s pleasure. Now what of your own story, man? I never took you for anything but a common, reasonable man and yet you tell me this nonsense has ensnared you as well?”

The captain grinned like an insolent child and said, “what is nonsense to you is of the utmost importance to some, including myself and the boy. How old was I when first you took notice of me?”

Master Tuttle said thoughtfully, “sixteen summers I believe, you were just about to join the guard as your father and grandfather before you, but you took dreadfully ill with pneumonia and even the doctor had given you up, but you surprised us all and one morning awoke as fit as you had ever been.”

Said the captain quietly, “the doctor was correct, the disease claimed me that night, but I had already given myself to Another. That summer, right before I was to join the guard, I said farewell to my family and hied myself into the hills and knelt before a certain legendary Stone. Upon my return, I was still intent on joining the guard but the pneumonia found me first and soon claimed my life. But death is but the beginning for a Messenger. Ever since have I been in this service, though living quietly with none the wiser, rising slowly through the ranks, awaiting the day when my true quest would be revealed. This journey is but the start, I think.”

Tuttle shook his head gravely, “the entire time I have known you, you have been a part of this, this, mad order? And I never knew?”

The captain grinned, “aye, Sir, and long after you have passed out of living memory, still shall I serve thus.”

The Secretary gaped, “but surely you must die! Men cannot go on living forever, at least not without invoking blood magic or worse! Or so I was led to believe.”

Benigan said gravely, “my comrades die on a regular basis in the course of our duties, what do you think the boy just endured? But it is not a permanent state for us, nor need we invoke the forbidden arts to avail us, for our Master has conquered death and is the rightful Lord of all Life.”

Just then the lad ducked into the tent, smiling abashedly but seemingly no worse for wear after his trying day. Tuttle studied them both with an unreadable expression on his face, said he at last, “what then am I to make of all this?”

The captain shook his head, “go on as you have been directed and all will be well, Sir. You are still in charge and we but your faithful servants, sent to ward this company from any who would think to do it harm. Our more curious nature need be of no concern to you, save that our uncanny skills are at your service.” He grinned at the lad, “that was very nice work with your phantom soldiers, I almost took them for the real thing and no doubt our enemies shall. You seem to have a knack for it; I can hardly produce a passable horse.” The man frowned as a thought occurred to him, “are you not an apprentice yet lad? What are you doing here alone?”

Bayard shrugged, “I hardly know what it is I do. My former mentor was last with the King, whose party we seek, so we shall undoubtedly be reunited eventually.” He smiled hopefully, “but I would happily learn whatever it is that you might care to teach me.”

The man slapped him on the back, “that I will lad, but I warn you, I am not as wise and experienced as some.”

Tuttle was rather uncomfortable in the presence of all this camaraderie and made his farewells, pleading some needful business or other awaiting him without. They watched him go with sad smiles, their pity smote him sore. Why could they not mind their own business? What right had they to pry into the private matters of the soul, particularly his own? He would believe what he wanted and that was it, or was it? He had found this whole assignment unnerving from the first, but he would do anything for his vanished master, even look into the supernatural when he did not believe in any of it and take part in a journey that kept him in close company with such uncanny men.

He sorely missed his icy reserve, his unshakable certainty in the reasonableness of things, and his highly tuned efficiency; nothing had been the same since he encountered that fool boy. And now he felt like an outsider looking in, for he had no part in whatever strangenesses and peculiarities they seemed to share. He had known the captain most of his life yet was far from intimate with him, or anyone else for that matter, and yet this boy, a veritable stranger, treated him like a long lost father, brother, and friend! He wanted that too, whatever it was, perhaps not the uncanny lifestyle but that unshakable confidence, that undying hope and sense of purpose, and that sense of belonging, no matter where one found oneself in life. But he could not believe; he would not!

With these grim thoughts roiling in his mind, he betook himself away from that accursed tent, away from the camp, but he could not escape his uneasy thoughts. He sat down upon a mossy stone beside the creek, its age-old song a solace in his ears. He glanced up at the diamond studded sky and the infinite blackness between those pinpricks of light and beauty. Was that his life, that blackness? Was that all his future: the cold and the dark? Could there be more, was he meant to be more? It would take admitting that he was wrong, but could that be so bad? The dancing stars reminded him uncomfortably of the light that surrounded his odd companions, could such be wrong or merely a hallucination? The beck murmured sleepily and chuckled as if the answer to his questions were obvious. He shuddered, for he knew it was. Only one question now remained: could he bend his stubborn neck to embrace the truth as it had been revealed to him?

He gasped then in pain as darkness overwhelmed him. He heard the brook’s song louder than ever, indifferent to his agony, as he lay with a crossbow bolt in his chest, gasping for air, and prone amongst the leaf litter. He saw a dark figure lean over him in the night, obscuring the once comforting stars, and then he heard a cruel chuckle and the fading crunch of retreating feet in the underbrush. He was dying, he knew it, his assailant knew it, now there was naught to do but breath his last and go the way of all men. But some stubborn part of him rebelled, he could not, would not die like this! But that part had no control over anything anymore. It shrieked at its own impotence and withdrew weeping into the shadowy recesses of his mind. He gazed blearily at the stars, still shining in their silent dance above. And he smiled.

Not a smug grin or a disdainful smirk, but a true, heartfelt smile, perhaps the first and only time he had done so in his adult life. He wanted what the stars had. He wanted what his strange companions had found. Tuttle wanted life and laughter and music and Joy, not that cold dark between the stars, which was all he would find did he not cry for mercy from the One who wrought them.

“I thought you would never ask,” came a pert, but pleased voice.

Tuttle gaped anew, a habit hardly becoming to a Secretary of his standing but what was that now? A magpie perched upon the bolt buried in his chest and peered at him with eyes more fathomless than the endless black overhead, but it was not the vacant depths of space in that gaze but a knowing and a being and a joy that he could not begin to comprehend. He had found home at last, or so he thought, but the Bird had other plans.

Said He, “you are of no use like this child, and I have not yet summoned you for your final interview, so I had best intervene.” He tapped the bolt with his bill and both He and it vanished in that strange, comforting light of a thousand gathered stars. Tuttle gasped once more and passed from all conscious awareness.

He awoke to find Bayard and the Captain both leaning over him worriedly, but they relaxed visibly when they saw him stir. His tunic was a ruin, covered in blood with a gaping hole in the middle, but the skin was intact and healthy beneath. What truly surprised them, Tuttle was strangely amused that even these usually confident Messengers could occasionally gape like an over-wrought Secretary, was the mark upon his chest. He stiffly raised his head and gaped himself. Wrought in silver, aglow with entrapped starlight, was the figure of a standing unicorn where the wound should have been. He smiled in spite of himself and then turned curious eyes to the captain. Coughed he, “what is it? What does it mean?”

The captain shook his head in perplexity, unlacing his tunic to reveal his own mark. The Secretary frowned thoughtfully at the differences. Benigan then raised a glowing hand and offered it to Tuttle. He took it, but there was no answering pulse of light, though perhaps the unicorn over his heart glinted bluely in response. The captain pulled him to his feet and said with a smile, “you are marked Sir, but not as a Messenger.”

Tuttle said quietly, “I suppose it is just a reassurance to the King of Whose I am, that he need not fear taking me into his service.” He smiled grimly, “and a reminder to myself that this strange night was no dream nor is our Master but a legend.”

The senior Messenger grinned, “and how do you know that?”

Tuttle shrugged, smiling contritely, “I just do. And that with all my heart.”

Benigan clapped him on the back and Tuttle’s heart leapt for very joy, continued the captain, “then you surely have the right of it. And I suppose it is high time we returned to camp, like the sensible men we claim to be.” Tuttle smiled from his very heart, being both vastly amused and quite relieved that he could be both sensible and yet believe the inconceivable.

 

They returned to camp, at least Master Tuttle and Bayard hied themselves hence, but Captain Benigan had an assassin to find before it found him. He had a fair idea of what he was hunting and what its intentions were, so he sent the apprentice off with the Secretary, knowing the former would come looking if he did not return by morning. He smiled grimly, wondering what the boy would make of this new nemesis after the varied and fell minions of evil he had already overcome; it might be rather anticlimactic after the notable fiends he had already survived. There was no doubt in Benigan’s mind that there was a Hunter stalking the company, for nothing else could be so deadly yet so elusive; the creature would undoubtedly try to make an end of the leaders of the company and then take its time with the panicked and scattered remnants. It had already attacked Bayard and the Secretary, and the Captain knew he must be next. He fingered his sword eagerly, anticipating the coming conflict and the chance to use his uncanny skills at last. Then he saw it.

His keen night vision caught the glint of rapacious eyes in the moonlight and saw the silhouette of a great bird of prey perched just above him in an ancient oak. It studied him as intently as he watched it; he shuddered in eagerness and dread, for he had found his quarry or perhaps it had found him. It silently took wing and stooped upon him, but he had his sword at the ready and narrowly missed as the Hunter swerved from its attack at the last moment with a shriek of rage that its prey should have anticipated it. It hovered momentarily above the ground at eye level and suddenly became a man, tall, broad, and cowled all in black. They stared at one another stonily for uncounted minutes and then the Hunter spoke at last, grudging respect in his voice but no less mocking, “the mouse bears a sword I see.”

Benigan grated, “I am no rodent to be preyed upon at leisure. You will not find me so easy a victim as an untried boy and a man who knows nothing of the warrior arts.”

“Yes,” drawled the creature, “as to that, why do the vermin yet live? How is it you are not blind as any man in the night?”

Benigan could not help but smile, “my Master’s gifts are many and varied, know that this company is well warded and travels under His protection. Assault us at your own peril.”

His laughter was cold and far from amused, “so think you little mouse, if it brings you comfort. Let us see if the legends surrounding your accursed kind are true.” He grew to thrice his current height and twice his breadth, becoming a veritable giant, and picking up the stymied captain in one great hand, the monster snapped his neck as if he were but a sparrow. He cast the unmoving creature aside and resumed his familiar man-shape, ghosting into the trees to see what might be drawn to the bait.

 

Dawn was beginning to pearl the east when Bayard felt drawn into the misty gloom outside the camp. He and the Secretary had returned as ordered, the latter sleeping soundly in one corner while Bayard waited uneasily for the captain’s return. The hours passed and still Benigan did not come, at last, the boy felt drawn into the outer world and happily did he obey, unable to remain a moment longer a fretful captive of doubt. It did not take him long to find the place where the man lay, stiff and cold in the predawn grey, but before he could rouse the captain from death’s slumber, he was set upon by something to which he could put no name. It seemed manlike at times but the next moment some aspect or feature quite reptilian or even alien to mortal ken betrayed its hideous nature. It hissed triumphantly in the boy’s ear, “let us see if your precious Master can free you from the fate I intend, indeed, he could not save your friend. Then I will have my way with the rest of your pathetic companions.”

He bore the struggling Messenger deep into a cave, through whose lengthy and cramped mouth they barely squeezed. Within crouched a lad Bayard’s own age, terror writ large in his eyes. “Now,” hissed the Hunter, throwing down his captive, “we will make some use of this wretch, but first…” The creature leapt at the boy, but rather than attacking, it merely grabbed the front of his tunic and ripped it open at the neck. The silver unicorn glinted defiantly in the gloom and the Hunter nodded, “as I thought, but no matter. Blood is blood; it will suffice.” He scowled at the boy, “take him wretch and do now as I instructed you.”

The boy trembled in absolute terror yet managed to squeak defiantly, “no! I have had enough of you and your kind, I want no part in this.”

The Hunter hissed, “you think this little show of bravado will spare either of you? Why did you not show your true colors when I slaughtered your entire family before your very eyes rather than take my master’s mark upon yourself and beg mercy? You cannot hope for anything but death and a cold, lonely eternity, in which to mull endlessly over your own wretchedness! Will you not embrace the power that is offered you in what remains of your worthless life?”

The boy said nothing, but averted his eyes, and wept as one bereft of his soul. Bayard watched with pitying eyes and wondered what cruel doom the boy had embraced. He felt the pitiless eyes of a hawk upon himself and turned to meet the Hunter’s gaze, unflinching.

The creature laughed mockingly at the boy’s utter lack of fear and then struck with all the speed and strength of a snake, for snake he now was, though a constrictor rather than a venomous specimen. He enwrapped the boy so completely in his coils that only his head, one arm, and the tips of his boots protruded. Hissed he in utter delight, “watch now wretch, what shall be your doom when I have finished with this pest I had intended to use for your own benefit.” He began to squeeze and the Messenger’s eyes bulged disturbingly from his skull with the building pressure, but Bayard kept his wits about him and let his Master’s power flow through him. A dagger, wrought of that uncanny radiance, appeared in his free hand and he drove it deep into the snake’s side; azure light flashed and danced over the blade and hilt and into the monster itself, which thrashed and hissed in agony, momentarily releasing the boy, but he was not yet defeated. A huge bear suddenly loomed in the cramped chamber and reduced the impudent Messenger to bloody shreds with a few strokes of its great claws.

It turned its fiendish eyes upon the terrified boy, who had ceased his weeping to watch in horrified fascination as his master tangled with the uncanny lad. The boy saw his own doom written in that awful gaze, but the monster groaned pitiably, slumped forward, and moved no more. The boy fainted dead away in grief, horror, and relief; all three occupants of the cave lay as if dead.

 

At the King’s behest, Garren was working with his Majesty on his sword technique one evening as their companions were busy setting up camp. The lad was holding the Sword he had pulled from the Stone and Garren was adjusting the set of his shoulders, when Kipril suddenly ran up behind the elder Messenger, his hand alight in the gathering twilight, and touched his mentor’s back. Before the man had time to protest or question what the apprentice thought he was doing, both King and Messenger had vanished in a flash of blue light. Ithril, who had been standing on the sidelines observing the practice session, exchanged a startled look with his fellow apprentice, “what did you just do?”

Kipril shook his head, “I hardly know, but it was of the utmost importance.” He smiled in amusement, with only a hint of dread, “let us just hope Garren and the King understand that ere their return.” The apprentices exchanged a wry grin before returning to their various duties, hoping none had seen the King’s sudden departure.

 

The pair materialized in the wan grey of predawn in a great wood, apparently rather distant from their location of the moment previous. Garren smiled ruefully as he studied their situation, never ceasing to find his Master’s ways rather perplexing but always the best means of doing things. He let go his grip on the King’s shoulders and said with a wry grin, “it seems we have business to be about, Majesty.”

The King did not reply, but rather gasped as his gaze fell upon a dead man lying not three paces from where they stood, his neck bent at an impossible angle. Garren knelt beside the cold, wet form and smiled knowingly, said he, “perhaps we shall have our answer in a moment.” He touched a glowing hand to the dead man’s chest and his neck righted itself with a hideous crack. Benigan rubbed the offending area and smiled ruefully up into the eyes of the stranger, nodding his thanks, before frowning and glancing about in some concern.

Garren asked, “what is it?”

Benigan said worriedly, “there is a Hunter on the loose hereabouts.”

Garren nodded, “with all the strange happenings of late, that does not surprise me in the least. What is it after?”

Benigan eyed the King curiously, but feeling he must trust a man in company with one of his comrades, replied, “I am part of a company en route to find the new King with many a treasure to help his cause. Our enemies undoubtedly hope to prevent such a meeting.”

Garren grinned in spite of this dire news, said he, “well, here is your King, albeit momentarily out of place and time for some reason we have yet to discover. Where exactly are we?”

Benigan then summed up the situation and Garren shared his own curious tale, concluding with their current plans to reach Gormanth by month’s end. Benigan nodded, “we shall direct our path thither then.” He turned to the King and made a rather grand bow, finishing, “if that would please your Majesty?”

Kyan grinned impishly at the grandiose words and gesture but made an appropriate courtesy of his own. Continued Benigan thoughtfully, “you said you were missing an apprentice?” He smiled, “I think I know where to find him, and perhaps the Hunter as well.” He turned grim eyes on the King, and said, “I wonder what his presence here implies?” They exchanged a grave look and hastened off in the direction they suddenly felt calling to their very souls.

After much crawling, squeezing, and wriggling, they managed to cram themselves into the narrow confines of the Hunter’s lair, which was overcrowded with a dead bear and the mortal remains of two men. Upon closer inspection, the one nearest the wall appeared yet to draw breath. Benigan withdrew, and after another round of worming his way through the narrow passage, returned with a crude torch, that the King might see as well as they in the dim cavern. Kyan gasped in horror at what the light revealed.

Garren knelt beside the unconscious boy but drew back in horror, saying grimly to the King, “he has much the same aura about him as Corbin did when first we met.” The others looked at him blankly as he continued, “the lad is marked by our Master’s greatest enemy as one of his own, whether intentionally or not, I cannot yet say. He could be an uninitiated Hunter or merely a victim of the fiend’s fell schemes, much as Corbin found himself.” He knelt again beside the boy, overcoming his revulsion, and shaking him gently.

The lad awoke with a start to find three strangers in the cavern, the Hunter dead, and himself alive. They gazed at him stonily, so much so, that he wished to pass again into the unknowing dark. Garren felt his unease and said quietly, moderating his tone that it might be as gentle as possible, “tell us lad, what has happened here?”

The boy wept out the full, horrible tale of how the Hunter had come upon his family’s home one dark night, and one after the other, had slaughtered the entire clan until only the boy remained. Terrified, the lad pled for mercy and thus received the mark and had followed the Hunter from that day, doomed to become such himself, but never easy with his own cowardice or the fate that awaited him. At last he resisted, but it was too little, too late, for he yet bore the mark, though the Hunter was dead. They would come for him, for he was the property of the Dark and it never let go once it took hold. He then told of the strange boy and his defeat of the awful bear.

Garren actually smiled, though his face was still grim at the boy’s impending fate, said he, “let us see if we can find my missing apprentice.” The boy frowned in consternation, but the others looked on with anticipation as the man knelt beside the tattered remains of what had been Bayard. The boy gaped as a blue light engulfed the mess and the lad was suddenly blinking and smiling, whole once more. He laughed aloud to see Garren kneeling over him, smiled at Benigan, and bowed his head to the King.

As he gained his feet, Bayard turned grim eyes upon Garren, “what of the lad?”

Garren shook his head and eyed the King gravely, “this is why his Majesty was summoned to this place, for there is justice to mete out.”

The lad lay against the far wall and wailed, “do not leave me to the Dark! Please, save me at least from that!”

The King knelt beside him and said quietly, “you have sworn yourself bodily to evil and evil will have you whether you would or not. As long as you live, they will come for you.”

Said the boy quietly, “this I know to my very soul, but is there no hope even in death? Am I doomed to eternal night whether I live or die? Is despair all my future?”

Garren said gently, “there is hope for your soul lad, seek the Master’s mercy and find mercy indeed, not the cruel malice that the dark deals out and calls it grace. There can be no hope in this life for those so marked, but it is boundless in that to come, if you seek it with a humble and willing heart.”

The boy’s eyes danced with joy and peace, no longer afraid or uncertain, said he, “let it be unto me even as you have spoken.” He then turned sad but understanding eyes upon the King, “do as you must Majesty, for evil must not triumph.”

So it was the boy found peace at last and embarked on that greatest of all adventures, at least mortally speaking. They crawled from the cavern, leaving the bear and boy to their eternal slumber. Bayard blocked up the entrance with stones wrought of light, the King watching with a thoughtful look in his eyes. As the sun finally rose, Garren placed a firm hand on the King’s shoulder and looked to Bayard, “you know what to do lad?”

Bayard nodded and held a glowing hand aloft, said he with a grin, “we shall catch up as soon as may be, the Master willing.” They exchanged a laugh and then vanished in a flash of blue, reappearing only moments after Ithril and Kipril had abandoned the makeshift practice yard. Benigan and Bayard went to see if the Secretary had yet awakened.

 

The party rode on for some days in a blissful state of unexcitement and very near boredom; to the weary adventurers, it was blessing indeed, but such a company must inevitably draw those seeking illicit gain, abetted no doubt by the darker powers-that-be that loathed the thought of the nascent King receiving aid in any form. The good captain had a dozen trusty guardsmen under his command and was no novice himself, though Bayard was as yet certainly no swordsman. The boy had conjured a dozen phantom soldiers that could maintain the appearance of able-bodied armsmen but were of absolutely no use in an actual confrontation, which was what seemed to be brewing at that very moment. One of the guardsmen, sent ahead as a scout, galloped back to the company all aflutter, with an arrow sticking jauntily out of his hat, gasped he to the captain, “sir! There are two dozen or more bandits lying in wait just around the bend, I barely escaped with my life and no doubt they will be upon us immediately, as surprise will no longer avail them.”

Benigan nodded grimly, caught Bayard’s eye, and then offered this stunning order, “very good, draw back with the rest of our men and protect the Lady, Master Tuttle, the servants, and the luggage while I, the boy, and the new armsmen ride ahead and stall these impertinent ruffians.”

The man gaped but swallowed his protest, saluted his captain, and rode off towards the bulk of the company, bellowing orders as he flew.

Master Tuttle, who had heard the entire exchange, gave the captain a questioning look, but recent experience had taught him to believe in miracles, which is what it would take to spare the company, so he said nothing, nodded solemnly, and turned after the flying guardsman and the retreating bulk of the company.

Bayard’s eyes were wide with wonder at this strange arrangement, but an eager smile tugged at the corner of his lips, as he realized there was far more to the matter than he could yet perceive. He gathered his phantasms together and they arranged themselves in an orderly fashion behind the Messengers, barring the road. Bayard turned a grim smile upon the captain, “sir,” said he, “can we do aught but delay them for a moment?”

Benigan laughed eagerly, “aye lad, there is something afoot, though I hardly know what. We and your phantoms can do little to injure our oncoming foes, but they do not yet know that. Let us see what else our Master intends.” He drew his sword and the rest of the company followed suit; the phantom horses tossing their heads and rearing as they felt Bayard’s rising excitement, even as the onrushing hoard of sword-wielding banditti rounded the bend and fell upon them with impunity.

Bayard found himself exchanging blows with a lad his own age, who was just as unskilled with his blade and far more terrified than furious, somehow he managed to drive his sword through the Messenger’s heart, which seemed to unnerve him all the more, for he barely kept his grip on his sword and his place in the saddle. Instead of falling into pain and darkness with the fatal blow, Bayard felt his Master’s power surging within him, mending his stricken heart even as the boy remembered to draw back his blade, but it did not stop there. The light rushed through every inch of him, even the phantom horse beneath him was engulfed in a blue radiance, with the light merging, consuming, changing him. He heard his foe squawk in startled dismay and the boy’s horse scream in terror. Bayard opened his eyes and smiled fiendishly, stretching out a hand as big as a man and thrice as strong, towards the nearest man, one of his own phantoms, and flung the hapless figment against the bole of an ancient tree, which trembled from the force of the impact. The ogre laughed in horrid delight and turned upon the next nearest foe, continuing to rend and fling and crush, be it bandit or phantom, he struck out at anyone he found within reach.

The bandits cried out in horror, many flung from their saddles or carried off by horses stricken mad with terror; the hideous creature laughed dreadfully and fell upon any and all fool enough to remain. Benigan drew back, watching in astonishment as the monster wrought havoc amongst their foes, while those who were able, quickly fled. The last of the bandits collapsed in a terrified faint as the ogre turned its hideous, though laughing eyes, upon the captain. He felt no fear from the creature, knowing it still had the mind and heart of the boy, but it was certainly gruesome to look upon and his own men would not approach while it lingered. The captain hefted the boar spear he suddenly felt in his grasp and urged his horse to charge the monster, which stood there blinking stupidly, as if unsure what was happening. The spear pierced the ogre’s tough hide and penetrated his heart; this time darkness and pain engulfed Bayard even as the light danced through him anew. The fiend vanished, or rather shrank, in an explosion of blue light, that upon fading, revealed the shattered form of a boy, prone upon the sward.

The captain dismounted and rushed to the side of the unmoving lad, a grim smile on his face. A few moments later, they were exchanging amused grins and the captain was helping the onetime ogre to his feet. They then surveyed the carnage the monster had wrought. Phantom horses and armsmen lay strewn about the road like children’s toys while greater than half the bandits lay insensible among them, the others having fled upon the monster’s advent. Ignoring the phantoms for the moment, they quickly went about securing the bandits, a task which the captain’s flesh and blood guardsmen soon aided, as they had watched from a distance and came running the moment the monster was overcome and the bandits dispersed. Once the moaning and trembling rogues were safely bound, Benigan sent his men off to round up the rest of the band while he and Bayard repaired the mischief wrought among the phantoms, man and horse alike.

Tuttle approached with wide eyes and a wan smile as Benigan sent a pulse of blue light into the last of the prone phantoms; the figment blinked, stood, and walked unsteadily off to where its fellows stood. Bayard came at the run, a smile of pure mischief on his face. No one else stood near enough to hear, so Tuttle felt safe in broaching his questions and astonishment, said he, “what exactly was that?”

Benigan studied the boy thoughtfully, grinned in amusement, and then turned to Tuttle, saying, “salvation Master Tuttle, salvation! Though by a means quite unlooked for.” He studied the boy again, who grinned impishly in reply, said the captain at last, “could you do it again lad?”

Bayard frowned in consternation, but said thoughtfully, “I think I could replicate the feat, having endured it once, though through no conscious effort of my own; it will merely require a slight alteration of the technique used to change our features or garments.” His smile broadened, “I now understand how the Warder of the Stone can wear so many varied guises.”

Tuttle looked at the trembling, huddled mass of bandits, half beginning to stir, the rest still blissfully unaware of all that passed around them, said he in surprise, “I could not see well from my vantage point, but from the beating those fellows took, how can any of them yet be alive?”

The captain grinned, “the Messengers cannot harm a living soul Master Secretary, at least not in any lasting capacity, even if we happen to resemble a dragon or other monster at the time.” He turned appreciative eyes upon the lad, “where did you learn to fight like that?”

Bayard laughed, “I was once a little boy, sir, I believe we are born knowing such things; at least it was far more effective than my sword work.”

The captain nodded, “yes, we’ll have to work on that for what remains of the journey. It is a skill you will need to master, and soon, if you are to be effective in this service.” He smiled wryly, “regardless of your other, more interesting skills.”

The bulk of the guardsmen returned with the majority of the fled bandits in tow; only one man was unaccounted for and two of the soldiers were still in pursuit. Master Tuttle studied the panicked renegades, then turned grim eyes to the captain, “what shall be done with them? We certainly can’t let them loose to harm others or try their hand at us once more, but neither do I look forward to slaughtering two dozen men.”

The captain studied the rogues thoughtfully, both the recently returned and those already bound, and then said, scratching his chin, “the whole lot of them are terrified, for which I can’t blame them in the least, and most of them seem to be young men, little more than boys really, rather than hardened criminals. Perhaps we can be merciful and they can be of benefit to us as well.” Tuttle frowned in consternation, but held his peace as the captain approached the prisoners, ordering his men to waken any that still had not regained their senses.

Once the wide-eyed throng of ne’er-do-wells was fully awake and focused on the grim looking captain, he began, “who is in charge of your foul little band?” A snarling fellow among those who had been first to flee said nothing, but glared at Benigan, who shook his head ruefully at the man’s insolence despite his current situation, continuing he said, “I see your brave captain is not a reasonable sort, so I shall speak to you as a group and as individuals rather than relaying my message through your esteemed leader. Now you have all been captured in the attempt of banditry, if not murder, and you all know the fate that awaits you.” There was much groaning and snarling at this, but the captain pushed on, “however, I am willing to be lenient if you are willing to cooperate. If you are willing, you may hire on as guards for this company for the remainder of our journey, albeit I won’t be paying you for your trouble. At journey’s end, the King will have his say in the matter, but I think he may be merciful if you have completed the journey in good faith and promise to abide within the law in future. Any who refuse can yet face the justice due them. Any treachery will be punished swiftly and severely, am I understood?”

He turned from them then, to allow them to think the matter through and discuss it at length amongst themselves. Tuttle was agape, “what have you just done?”

Benigan grinned, “we need more swords, or at least the appearance of competent swords, if we are to avoid similar encounters upon the way. Most of these lads aren’t evil but rather desperate, looking for adventure, or simply misguided. I am offering them a chance to reevaluate their rash decision and a second chance at life; they may yet become good and respectable men one day. The true scoundrels will face their due.”

The Secretary sighed, “very well captain, do as you wish. It seems sensible, if insane!”

Benigan smiled, “fear not, sir, I will know if they are lying or intend any harm towards you and yours.” Tuttle sniffed emphatically but said nothing more upon the matter. Just then hooves clattered upon the road and announced the return of the missing guardsmen and the last bandit. They drew rein before the captain and saluted smartly; their prisoner, the boy who had first stabbed Bayard, slumped dejectedly in his saddle, but upon recognizing the boy, he looked ready to flee then and there, despite his grim escort.

The lad was forcibly removed from his saddle and stood trembling before the stern captain but soon went to his knees in dread and terror, whimpered he, “please sir, do you not know that the man beside you is a warlock of the worst sort, a shape-shifter and a monster?”

Bayard flashed Tuttle a mirthful grin, “I have been called worse, but none of it is true. Look to your fellows lad, are they not alive and whole?”

The boy frowned but surveyed those about him and gasped, “that they are, but how?”

Bayard laughed outright, “some secrets are not mine to divulge, but know that no harm shall come to you as long as you abide by what the captain shall tell you.” The offer was repeated to the truant boy, and as he pondered the strangeness of the situation, Benigan called upon the others to declare their intentions. Several of the more hardened and haughty of the lot, their leader included, snarled imprecations and insults at their captors and were summarily hung for their crimes while the majority were more than willing to take the captain’s offer and see what came of it. Of these, Benigan weeded out a trio that spoke words of honey and sincerity, but lied all the while and upon further questioning, revealed their true intentions, and so met the same fate as their unfortunate leader. Once the more reprehensible details were accomplished, the party was soon enough in their saddles and pressing onwards once again; the surviving bandits were astonished and amazed, but eager to start their lives anew.

 

In the ruins of a once great but infamous castle outside the despotic city of Gormanth, something stirred. The whole structure had collapsed in upon itself, its very foundations destroyed, not three days prior and it was thought none survived, but there was no doubt something was quite alive in the midst of the ruins. An iron grey sky, the clouds not quite low enough to touch, hung over the dismal scene and gave no indication of doing otherwise for many long days to come. Veils of fog drifted about the ruin, obscuring whatever it was that had survived the collapse or had taken up residence within shortly thereafter. An eerie blue light suffused the place, illuminating the mist and dancing on the broken stones, while the crunch and groan of crumbling rock filled the air whenever the occupant moved, for whatever it was, it was immense. Word had quickly spread that his Lordship, the Rider, and most astonishingly of all, the Beast were dead, but rumor spread even quicker that something yet lurked within the confines of his Lordship’s former abode. When gossip also said a King had been crowned and was on his way to Gormanth to establish his reign, the people eyed the ruin and wondered what he would make of this new menace, for they would have no King that could not also rid the realm of such a monster.

The Dragon, for some intrepid children had crept into the ruin and at last glimpsed the monster for what it was, kept many a usurper and upstart lord or knight, who might otherwise vie for the crown and plunge the realm into civil war, from acting too rashly, for it was now firmly believed that no man would be accepted as ruler over the realm who did not first dispose of the Dragon. His Lordship’s Beast was bad enough, but it had no mind of its own and the Rider was at least a man, if an evil one, but this monstrosity seemed to have no lack of cunning or strength, but neither did it stir from the ruins to lay waste the countryside, rather it seemed content to wait for something, which many thought to be the coming of this rumored King. The entire realm shivered in anticipation and dread, knowing this was the stuff of which stories were made, but were rather uncomfortable in the knowledge that the thing lived right next door. Stories were all well and good, but most preferred to experience them at a comfortable distance of time and space, but the monster seemed disinclined to give them that chance. So they could do nothing but wait and watch and pray, hoping this King was all that rumor held him to be and more.

So it was that men intent upon the throne gathered outside Gormanth to await the coming of the so-called King. Some came alone, some with armies, but anyone with a claim or interest in the crown could not afford to miss all that was to come or all chance of taking it for oneself would be lost. They stared stonily at one another and watched the ruins uneasily, but wait they did. Let the alleged King face the monster, and if he failed, then they could dispute it among themselves. If he succeeded, there was little point in doing aught but swearing fealty then and there to such a mighty man. Even a great Elfin Knight had come to witness the proceedings, though he would not condescend to speak to mere mortals upon the matter. Some stared at him in dread, wondering if his Lady had sent him to win the realm for herself, knowing little good could come of such a circumstance for mortal men. But he only smirked knowingly at them, if he deigned to notice them at all, as he sat his great horse and studied the ruin and its mysterious occupant.

This was the situation into which the King and his party rode on yet another gloomy day of leaden, lowering clouds, and at first none noted the newcomers, for what was another party of horsemen come to wait the King’s coming? They found a place to camp among the others on the barren, dragon-seared waste on the far side of the road from the ruin, not yet announcing that the King was come indeed. Garren and Kipril rode out to do a little scouting and hear the local gossip as the others set up camp, for the King was growing impatient to know what was truly happening, for the rumors had grown wild indeed as the company approached Gormanth. He shivered to think he might somehow have to slay a dragon, he who could barely wield a sword, but Garren assured him the original Beast was dead and their Master would not provide them with an obstacle they could not overcome. This mollified the King somewhat, but he chivied the Messengers out of the camp and ordered them to hurry in their gossip-gathering, lest he go mad.

Their first stop was the ruin itself, for Garren thought there little point in listening to rumors of the beast when they could discover what it was for themselves, for it could do no permanent harm to such as they. Their mist-wrought horses showed no fear, though all but the great elfin horse panicked if driven too near the Dragon’s lair. The Elf Knight sat his wondrous horse in his usual spot, his face aflame with pride and disdain for all those about him. His eyebrows rose to see a pair of horsemen approaching at the trot, little caring that their beasts would soon be galloping in the opposite direction, with or without their foolish riders, but the fools did not stop, save to draw rein as the impertinent Knight turned his horse broadside to block their path.

Garren reined in his horse sharply and asked, “can we be of service, Sir Knight?”

The elfin warrior sniffed, “I thought I was doing you the service of saving you from the beast, or at least from an embarrassing fall when your horses catch its scent.”

Garren smiled openly, “nay lord, please move aside for our intent is to pass and with full knowledge of that which lurks ahead. You do us no favors in delaying us, my master has bidden us thence and thence shall we go.”

The elf scowled, “very well fools, but it is your own blood that will very soon stain the rocks hereabout.”

Garren nodded his thanks and urged his horse on as the Knight drew aside; Kipril watched with wide eyes to see so legendary a creature, but followed silently after his master, vanishing over the hill and descending into the ruin. They heard the beast long before they saw it, but it knew they had invaded its lair and readied itself, as befitted a proper host, at least of the monstrous sort. The horses clattered to a stop in what had been the courtyard of the castle, but it was so cluttered with fallen stones and rutted from the collapse that there was hardly room for two horsemen abreast anywhere in the once wide-open space. A great silver head loomed out of the mist on a serpentine neck, lustrous blue eyes gleaming in the gloom; the creature raised a membranous crest as it cocked its head and studied the intruders. It actually seemed to smile, then roared, though whether in triumph or fury, none knew, but a wave of blue fire washed over the Messengers, sweeping over them like a river in flood. It smiled again, this time in anticipation, knowing the time had come; roaring in delight, it made ready to face the King.

Just outside the ruin, several curtains of the luminous blue fog wove itself into the figures of two mounted men. The Messengers exchanged a wondering gaze as they materialized once more in the mortal world. Garren smiled, laughed eagerly, and urged his horse up the bank and back towards the encampment. Kipril wore a befuddled smile, but his heart beat an eager tempo as he spurred after his master. They had scouted out the beast and the ruin, now on to the folk watching and waiting upon fate’s pleasure. They had no difficulty gathering all the information they needed and more, though they camped in the shadow of a dreadful beast, most everyone was rather bored and loved nothing more than to exchange gossip and rumors of what was to come with no little intertwining of their own hoped for exploits in the tale. The King was delighted to have his scouts return unthinkably soon after their departure and hastily withdrew to his tent to hear their news. He had heard the beast’s cacophony and wondered what it meant.

The King gaped, “the Dragon consumed you utterly with its flames? How can you look so delighted with such news? You perhaps can survive the inferno, but you forget I am a mere man!”

Garren shook his head, barely restraining a smile that should have split his face in two, said he, “Sire, the flames were purely our Master’s light and power, the same you wield with your own hand. I have a theory, completely unfounded, as to the source of the Dragon, but I little fear for your safety upon confronting the beast. It is a mere formality, not a true threat, more to keep these rebellious lords and knights in line as they awaited your coming, rather than a thing to prove your valor.”

The King still looked rather nervous but he smiled weakly, “I hardly know how to hold a sword yet without drawing my own blood, it is well then that I shall not have to face this creature in combat.” His hand glowed azure as he studied it thoughtfully, then looking up eagerly, he smiled whole-heartedly, “you are correct my friend, let us confront the Dragon and remove all doubt from the minds of all the realm.” The gathered Messengers offered up a hearty cheer in concurrence and then immediately leapt into action.

The camp stirred like a disturbed anthill as messengers were sent forth to proclaim the King’s arrival and his intent to deal with the beast immediately while those that remained unpacked banners, livery, and every sort of device and regalia with which to array the King and his company in a manner befitting his Majesty’s status. The elf Knight actually gaped at the news, never having believed the rumors of an imminent King, or if they were true, little thinking the fool claiming the title would actually confront the Dragon. He turned his horse and galloped over to the appropriate party, intent on confronting this so-called King ere the beast made an end of the matter. He gaped anew to see Garren standing alive beside the meager boy that must be their ridiculous King.

He neither dismounted nor offered any introduction or courtesy of greeting, but rather snarled, “just what do you think you are doing, you foolish mortal?” The King actually grinned but did not deign to answer one so uncouth, especially without introduction or invitation. The Knight snarled silently and then glared at Garren, demanded he, “I saw and heard enough, you should not have survived your foolish investigation. Something is gravely amiss, and in my Lady’s name, I demand you tell me what is going on!”

Garren shook his head, smiled slightly, and silently followed the King towards their waiting horses, roundly ignoring the rude Knight. He scowled at their backs and spurred his horse back to the ruin, intent on watching the fool destroy himself utterly. The King’s company, now impressively accoutered, set forth for the ruin, the King at their head, his Messengers immediately behind. As the company passed, the astonished crowd hastened in its wake, both eager for and dreading all that was to come. The King drew rein immediately before the ruin, his mist-wrought horse completely at ease with the situation, with the great throng forming a semi-circle upon the road behind him, a stone’s throw from the ruin. A great head loomed out of the mist and the entire company gave a collective gasp and took a step back, all save the King, who took an eager step forward, his hand raised in azure radiance, bright in the wan afternoon light. The Dragon roared and hissed, making such a ruckus that the terrified audience was forced to cover their ears, but the King pressed on.

The beast seemed mesmerized by the throbbing luminescence of the King’s hand, its head bobbing in time with the pulsing light, its eyes reflecting the azure glow. It uncurled itself from amidst the wreckage and slithered out into the open, causing another gasp of astonishment from the mystified watchers, but only a knowing smile from the King. He was close enough to plunge a sword into its breast, but he stood there empty handed, save for his upraised, glowing palm. The Dragon allowed his approach and all gasped again when he touched his hand to the creature’s chest. The light spread over the beast and immediately it shrank in upon itself, much as the castle had done in its collapse. When the light dimmed, a mere boy remained, blinking in wonder as the King removed his hand from the lad’s chest. When the perplexing creature went to one knee before the King, the collective gasp was followed by an unearthly silence and then a raucous cheer, and then all were on their knees, save the elfin Knight, who frowned and snarled silently to himself, still aback his magnificent horse.

As the crowd was gaining its feet, the Knight pushed his way through the mewling mass and demanded of the King, “what is this? What fell witchery or vile trick?” He pierced Bayard with a stare, “I hereby claim this boy or beast or warlock, whatever he be, for my Lady. She will get the truth out of him.”

Garren asked stonily, “and what interest has your Lady in any of this? Why does she bother with the affairs of mortals? What right has she to the lad?”

The Knight sneered, “I was sent to slay the beast and claim these lands for her Ladyship. Barring that, I will present the creature to my Mistress and she shall do with it as it pleases her.”

Garren shook his head gravely, “I challenge your right to take him thus.”

The Knight mocked, “come then, little fool, if you dare! Plead this creature’s case before my Lady, if you will.” He smiled cruelly, “but know it is death for any of your ilk to enter The Wood.”

Garren nodded, “I will risk it and accompany the boy.”

The Knight shrugged, as if to say, ‘suit yourself,’ and then turned his horse back the way he had come, herding the ruefully smiling Bayard forward with the end of his spear. Garren made his farewells to the King and his various apprentices, assuring them that they would not be long alone, took up the reins of a spare horse, and hastened after the elfin horse and his long sundered apprentice. He tossed the reins of the spare beast to Bayard as he galloped past and then stopped to speak quietly with a horseman in a company that had just arrived. Benigan’s eyes were wide but he nodded as Garren galloped off after the retreating elf.

 

The Knight neither slowed to allow the Messenger to catch up nor seemed to care that he had. He kept a careful watch upon his captive, wondering how it was such a monster could now be sitting so calmly aback a horse with the beast completely unaware of the true nature of its master. Worse, whatever the transformation, it had been wrought by a mortal man. Whatever a man could do, no doubt the elves could do far better. His eyes danced in anticipation as visions of what his Lady could do with such a beast played before his mind’s eye. His mood quickly soured to see the impertinent stranger riding beside the captive, speaking quietly as if they were old friends. He urged his horse forward and barged suddenly between them, glowering at first one and then the other, settling at last upon the elder, snarled he, “who or what are you? What is your relationship with this creature?”

Garren shrugged and smiled enigmatically, “you waste your time and that of your Lady. We are neither of us what you assume and of no benefit to you or yours whatsoever. I would advise you to let us return to the King at once.”

The Elf laughed darkly, “perhaps I shall detain you simply for the sake of delaying your wish. However, I dare not return to my Lady empty handed. This creature will at least bear witness to what has come to pass.” He smiled cruelly, “and perhaps we shall rid the world of your impudent presence in the process.”

Garren shrugged, as if his life had not just been threatened, and said, “then let us to this Lady of yours, that we may return the sooner.”

The elf shook his head in befuddlement but urged his horse forward with all haste, surprised that the mist-wrought beasts followed as easily as if they were elf-bred themselves. A grim smile grew on his lips as he remembered what came of mortal men who strayed into the Wood; that annoying stranger was certainly in for a surprise, and soon.

Garren felt the world and time itself shifting strangely around them, as if the elf rode outside the normal constraints of either and carried them in his wake. Suddenly the Knight drew rein before a path that turned sharply off the main road and dove into the heart of the murky wood that now loomed above them. The Messengers exchanged a grim but eager smile, feeling that something both wonderful and dreadful lay within the confines of this forbidden grove. Said the elf knight in all eagerness, “step into the shadow of the Wood at your own peril, but it is the way we must go. The beast has no say in the matter but you, fool mortal, can yet turn back.”

Garren gave him a wry grin, dismounted, and stepped among the trees. He felt himself dissolving into mist, at least the physical part of himself, and his horse vanished entirely. He felt the astonished eyes of the elf upon him and smiled bemusedly in answer. Bayard still stood upon the road, holding his horse by the reins and studying his master with some amusement.

“In with you, beast,” hissed the elf, annoyed that his unwanted companion had not been entirely unmade as he had hoped.

Bayard ducked under the cover of the moss-draped branches and felt his physical form melting away even as Garren’s had done. He studied himself momentarily, exchanged a vastly amused smile with Garren, and turned his gaze upon the astonished elf, who was grumbling under his breath as he entered the Wood himself, though neither he nor his horse underwent a change of any sort, save perhaps in mood. He scowled darkly at his companions and grated, “what is this? Mortals are unmade if they dare enter this Wood. Something has happened but I cannot say what and worse, you both appear to be wrought of that horrid light wielded by the so-called King.”

Garren nodded, appearing to be wrought of nothing but azure light, he said, “as I said previously, we are of absolutely no use or interest to your Lady. We are not exactly mortal men any longer thus we cannot be entirely unmade, but rather our Master’s power fills us and His will is our sole desire. It is His power you have witnessed this day, in us and in the King He has appointed.”

The elf actually gaped, he had seen many strange things in that legendary Wood but nothing to equal this, said he in dismay, “so there is no beast, just a wretched slave in guise like a wyrm? Trickery of the vilest sort, my Lady shall no doubt contest the matter, but I see no reason to trouble her with such insipid phantoms. Be gone, fell ghosts or whatever you be, and desecrate this Wood no longer.”

The pair exchanged an enigmatic smile, bowed politely to the distraught elf, and withdrew from the Wood, vanishing as they emerged into the twilight, having no physical form to give them substance in the mortal world. The elf knight smiled grimly, remounted his horse, and set off in search of his Lady with his strange tidings.

 

It was full dark when a pair of luminescent beings materialized out of the mist enshrouding the ruin wherein the monster had once lurked and soon they too were draped in darkness, as befitted mortal men. They hastened back to the King’s encampment, which seemed either to be under attack or in the very throes of merriment; Garren was delighted to find it the latter. Acceptance of the King had been unanimous and joyous from the moment he had vanquished the beast and now every minor lord, rogue knight, and upstart nobleman was doing his best to show their new sovereign that he was as loyal and needful a subject as ever drew breath. His Majesty sat upon his makeshift throne and watched dazedly as company after company approached and offered first their fealty and then some demonstration of skill or a gift in his honor; most of the evening had passed thus and the King was far beyond overwhelmed. At last, Benigan and Tuttle approached the throne, more than a little overawed in the presence of this King whom they had sought over so many leagues and found among so many noble and wealthy personages.

The King sat up in interest, suddenly intent upon the pair that knelt before him, sensing innately that there was something quite different about them. He bade them stand and they did so immediately. An eager grin appeared on the King’s face as he recognized Benigan; his smile turned to a thoughtful look as he studied Tuttle, said he at last, “you have come as promised. Now what of this storied wealth you bring in your train?”

Tuttle looked near to bursting as he said, bowing profusely time and again, “yes Majesty, we bring not only a King’s ransom, my late master’s entire fortune, but also his only daughter and heir as a potential bride.”

Kyan blanched at this, not having anticipated having to choose a Queen so soon, but it was certainly inevitable. The least he could do was meet the girl, for her father was certainly generous in his gifts and the company had journeyed far for this very thing. He sighed but smiled wanly and waxed eloquent in his thanks, much endearing himself to Tuttle while Benigan smiled amusedly at his shoulder. Just then, a murmur of astonishment in the crowd drew everyone’s attention, for something was amiss in the camp. Garren and Bayard emerged as the masses parted like water before them, overawed that they had somehow escaped the elf, most uneasy in the presence of the former ‘dragon.’ The King was on his feet in a moment and rushed to his returning captain, giving the smiling apprentice a joyous grin of his own. Tuttle blinked in astonishment but Benigan grinned in relief, knowing Garren’s instructions would now come to naught. He was not ready to lead this circus and was more than relieved to have the elder Messenger back in charge.

The other well-wishers and oath-givers were asked to wait while the King attended to some rather pressing business, as he withdrew to his tent to interrogate his captain and acquaint himself better with the entire business. He also had a mad scheme to propose and wanted Garren’s opinion on the feasibility of the operation and the help of his comrades in putting it into effect, if it were deemed possible, for if he were to be King, he certainly needed a place to live and a princess could not be housed in a shepherd’s cot. He might very possibly have a castle by morning. He grinned like a child expecting a gift from his just arrived grandparents and dashed into his tent just as quickly as any eager lad, his various Messengers and servants in close pursuit.

 

****

 

The Prince lay gasping out what little remained of his life on the forest floor, a boar spear embedded in his chest and pinning him to the turf. The purple ribbon on the shaft proclaiming boldly that the offending weapon belonged to his best friend and most faithful servant, but that could not be possible; it must be an accident or a mistake, but the ribbon flapped unabashedly in the stiff breeze and declared the perpetrator for all the world to see. His various companions stood over him helplessly, wearing varying expressions of horror, pity, and fear. He almost wanted to laugh at their discomfiture, but found the situation too hideous and the act too painful. Just then, the company parted and his cousin Ike loomed over him with the alleged miscreant held firmly before him, proclaiming triumphantly, “fear not Highness, the traitor did not get far, though it will do you little enough good, I am afraid.” He tried to make his voice doleful but there was an undeniable note of triumph in his voice, perhaps at catching the offender, or was it something else?

The Prince turned stricken eyes upon his dearest friend and exhaled in relief, though the lad was horrified, there was no malice or triumph in his gaze. Whatever had happened, the boy had not done it intentionally, at least with that knowledge he could die in peace, though the news would grieve his father terribly and leave the crown without an heir, at least he had not been betrayed by those dearest to him. The darkness finally won out, the Prince moaned quietly, and passed from all mortal striving. Ike smirked down at his dead cousin, his triumph no longer hidden, as he threw his captive to the ground beside the deceased Prince.

Bayard glared up at the traitorous young lord and said quietly, “your treachery will come to naught.”

Ike’s smirk became malicious, “so says the one who murdered the crown prince? That is boldness indeed.” He turned to his companions, fingering the fateful shaft, “what did you see my friends? Is this not the spear of this overbold and accusing wretch? Did he not kill our beloved Prince, his dearest friend and benefactor?”

The others murmured their hesitant agreement, none having seen exactly what had happened, but knowing at least that that particular spear belonged to the accused. Bayard said defiantly, “it may perhaps be my weapon but my hand did not hold the shaft nor cast the spear. It was your own hand that moved against your cousin that you might claim the throne in his stead, but the King will never allow such a one as you to wear the crown, regardless of blood…” Bayard cut off with a strangled gurgle as Ike clutched the Messenger’s throat.

Snarled Ike, “I will have no more of your vile lies, traitor.” Their companions drew back uneasily and exchanged horrified looks, wondering who or what to believe. Ike growled, “who will you believe? Me, who you have known your entire life and know to be of noble blood, or this wretched upstart from who knows where?” They stared at him with wide eyes and began to back away. Ike roared in fury and cast Bayard again to the ground, this time reaching for his sword and turning to face the cowards who would not stand and declare the truth. This was too much for the cowed hunting party and each was immediately in his saddle and galloping off in blind terror in a different direction. Snarling imprecations under his breath, Ike turned back to the gasping Bayard, whose ruined throat bore noisy testimony, with each rattling breath, to the strength of his gasp. Ike smiled slowly at his foe’s distress, knowing the fool would soon follow his friend into eternity, but he did not have time to watch, he must reach the King before the cowards who had flown before him with this grievous news. He gave the stricken boy a last, malicious grin and then mounted his horse and sped to the King.

Bayard lay gasping for a moment, but soon enough he was hale and whole once more. He stood and pulled the spear from the stricken Prince, looking down with a mixture of pity and joy upon his blankly staring friend. In preparation for his assumption of the crown one day, the Prince had sought out the Stone earlier that summer, though now the crown would never be his, neither would death have its due. An azure light engulfed Bayard’s hand as he knelt beside the dead prince and pressed his glowing palm to the lad’s chest. The horrid wound knit itself together and the prince drew a long, shuddering breath as his eyes blinked in amazement. He looked up into the eyes of his friend and smiled wanly, said he with a wry grin, “what will my father say?”

Bayard shook his head ruefully, but offered the former prince a hand and helped him to his feet. Said he quietly, “he will sorrow at his loss yet rejoice that he has not lost you utterly.” Bayard smiled reminiscently, “besides, he has seen far stranger things than this.”

Brinn smiled sadly, “I suppose he has at that.” He frowned at Bayard and then a mischievous smile blossomed, “and you have never been what I assumed you to be.”

Bayard grinned in echo of his friend, “aye and nay, aye and nay, I have truly been your friend, servant, and faithful companion these past years, but it was you who assumed me to be simply a mortal man.”

Brinn laughed warmly, “and I suppose my father was well aware of your deception?”

Bayard grinned impishly, “he and about fifty other people who have been involved in this from the start. You are far from alone my friend, and neither is your father. As tragic as this news shall be to him, it is far from devastating. Come, we had best seek him out before your treacherous cousin finds him.”

Brinn frowned in consternation, knowing their horses were likely long fled with the ruckus that had ensued during his murder. But Bayard’s horse walked up as if called, but before they could address the issue of Brinn’s mount, a far more intimidating crisis loomed out of the murk of the surrounding trees. An elfin knight, astride a great horse, towered over the boys but Brinn only showed the slightest traces of fear, rather he felt far more astonishment at his own relative calm in the presence of such an awful warrior; he mused grimly that he had already been murdered that day, what worse could this fell knight inflict upon him? He exchanged a rather amused grin with Bayard and then turned to face the intruder, said he without hesitation or quaver, “how may we be of service, Sir Knight?”

The elf studied the pair with a thoughtful frown, snarled he at last, “I seek the son of the usurper King for my Lady. A dreadful trick was played upon her some years ago and now she demands recompense. He will marry my Lady’s daughter and thus cede this realm to her or his blood shall be spilled in payment of his father’s betrayal.”

The boys exchanged an impish grin, not at all befitting the grim words of this fell messenger, but they could not help themselves. Said Bayard with a roguish smile, “I will leave you two to your business then, I must tell the King of all that has happened this day before your renegade cousin has that pleasure.” He bowed to them both, mounted his horse, and was off like the wind with the uncanny speed of his kind.

The remaining pair actually exchanged a quizzical look before the Knight growled, “good riddance, that wretched youth was at the heart of the deception that so deceived my aggrieved Lady.” He turned a grim eye upon Brinn, said he, “are you not the only son and heir of the upstart King?”

Brinn grinned insolently, “I am the only son of my father, the King, but he is hardly a usurper or rebel.”

The Knight nodded gravely, “and will you take the offer so magnanimously granted by my Lady? Will you have her only child to wife?”

Brinn frowned, “how is it your Lady would deign to allow her daughter to wed a mortal? It can only be a scheme to lay claim to this realm upon my own assumption of the throne.” He cocked an eyebrow quizzically, “and I do not doubt my own demise would follow not long after, leaving your Lady legal heir to the Kingdom and her daughter free to marry again.” He glared at the Knight, “it is death for me, either now or later, but I will not give your Lady my father’s realm. Do your worst Knight and let your Lady’s pathetic idea of justice be satisfied.” The Knight studied the boy for a few moments, rather taken aback that the wretched creature had so easily figured out his Lady’s scheme, but then shrugged indifferently, what was one mortal more or less, and drew his sword.

 

Bayard easily reached the palace before any of the hunting party and hastened to find the King. He was well known both as companion to the Prince and also as a long time confidant of the King, so none dared hinder his passing or delay him with insipid excuses, for if he wished to see the King, the matter must be urgent indeed. He found the King alone, save for his usual retinue of servants, guards, and advisors, in one of the smaller audience chambers. He looked up with interest as the servant announced Bayard, but his face grew grim as he noticed the boy returned alone. His Majesty immediately dismissed everyone else from the room, knowing this news was for his ears alone; they left after the usual complaints and dithering regarding his safety and their relative importance, but they did finally leave the pair alone.

Bayard offered the appropriate courtesies and then stood silently before the King, as if unsure how to proceed in telling him that his only son was dead. The King said quietly, “if you bear grim tidings, you had best get on with it, for I can only assume the worst and that is far worse than knowing the truth.”

Bayard nodded and said quietly, “the Prince was slain this morning upon a hunting foray by his cousin who wishes the crown for himself. It was no accident Highness and the perpetrator rides hither this very moment to claim it was I that pierced him through, for the spear in question bore my colors.”

The King nodded grimly, his countenance pinched and grey, but he lifted stern eyes to those of the uncomfortable Messenger, “but there is more to the tale.”

The boy nodded, a ghost of a grin on his face, “aye Sire, you know he sought the Stone this summer.”

A wan smile touched the King’s lips and a hint of color returned to his face, “so I have not lost him utterly, though I must find a new heir to the crown.” He lowered his eyes and gazed unseeing at his hands in his lap, said he softly, a tear in his voice, “but my only child, and murdered by his own cousin…”

A ruckus sounded outside the chamber door, bringing the King’s head up, he locked eyes with his Messenger. Bayard smiled ruefully, “I shall return to the scene Sire, and see that things are found as they were left. That elf Knight should be finished with his business by now.”

The confounded King mouthed the words, ‘elf knight?’ but raised a glowing hand as he did so, sending the boy back to the scene of the crime ere the witnesses arrived. He would have to wait to hear the full tale. He smiled grimly towards the door as the servant entered and announced the advent of his brother’s son.

 

Bayard gathered himself together out of the mist that warded a stream that wandered carelessly through the dank and hoary wood, a cheerful intruder oblivious to the forest’s eternal brooding. He hurried up the slope and out of the trees, into the clearing where tragedy had been wrought. There was no sign of the elf knight, but the former Prince lay headless off to one side of the glade with no sign of his head. Bayard smiled to himself, wondering what the fell knight would think when his trophy suddenly dissolved into mist and moonlight. He knelt beside his slain friend for the second time that day but did not yet waken him, but rather repaired the damage the elf had wrought. He drug the corpse back to the place where the spear had pinned him to the earth and took up the weapon, blue light played along the shaft and engulfed the tip. Bayard thrust it into the place where it had formerly lodged, the flesh obligingly drawing aside to give it passage. He then sat where Ike had thrown him and allowed his throat to resume the recent insult; gasping for breath, he passed out and lay unmoving beside his friend. The King’s soldiers arrived not long after and looked with grim eyes upon the tragic scene. They took up the stricken Prince and the unconscious perpetrator and hastened back to the castle.

The King remained in the small audience chamber but summoned Master Tuttle and the Captain of his Guard; he also bid his nephew Ike to remain. The murdered Prince and stertorous Messenger were soon borne in and the soldiers dismissed after giving their statements. The King turned grave eyes upon his nephew, all in the room wore looks as grim as death, save the smirking Ike, said the King, “you stand by your story then?”

The boy looked uneasily at the unconscious Bayard, mortified to find him yet alive, but what testimony could the stricken wretch provide and who would believe him? He drew himself up, met the King’s stony gaze, and said boldly, “that I do Majesty, this so-called friend of the deceived Prince struck your son down with his own spear when there was nary a sign of game. It was murder, pure and simple.”

“Very well,” said the King solemnly, “let us see what the other witnesses can tell us. The spear in question undoubtedly bears the colors assigned to the suspect, but that does not prove he cast the weapon.”

Ike looked very uncomfortable, other witnesses? But he reassured himself that the rest of the hunting party had seen nothing and were so terrified and confused as to make their testimony useless. But the King did not summon any of the hunters, but rather arose from his throne and approached the dead Prince and rasping Bayard. Ike’s jaw dropped as the King’s hand suddenly iridesced brilliant blue; Ike had heard the stories surrounding the King and his supposed powers but he had never believed them, but now he had no choice but to watch as they were unabashedly displayed before him. First the King approached the gasping boy and restored him to form and function before facing his murdered son. He smiled sadly down at the tiny silver unicorn just visible in the neck of the lad’s tunic, grateful to still have the lad with him but devastated that he bore the mark at such a young age. He placed his radiant hand upon that mark, both healing the late prince and wakening him from the sleep of death. The boy blinked awake and looked into his father’s eyes with both joy and chagrin. The King smiled sadly and drew the boy to his feet; they could not yet speak as they both so desperately wished.

The King turned his hawk-like gaze upon his gaping nephew and said quietly, “do you wish to revise your story?”

The irate youth snarled, “I have told the truth as I saw it Majesty, but how is it your son lives?”

The King smiled sadly, “he lives indeed, but no longer can he be heir to the throne nor even abide long in my house, for he now has his own duties to be about.”

Ike brightened, “so I shall still be your heir?”

The King frowned, “that is rather presumptuous, is it not, being that we have still not resolved the issue at hand?”

The boy blanched and the King continued, turning to Bayard, “tell all here present what it was you saw.” The boy told all he had seen and as he finished, the King nodded grimly and faced his nephew, “what do you say to that?”

Ike looked ready to fly, but there was nowhere to go; fury replaced fear as he snarled, “you take the word of this wretch over that of your own flesh and blood?”

The King smiled wanly, “in this case, yes, for I know what this boy is. He is incapable of either lying or murder.”

Ike sneered, “that perfect is he? Will you make him your heir then?”

Master Tuttle, the Steward, looked ready to either faint or assault the insolent youth for his lack of courtesy to the King, but he wisely held his temper and remained silent. Continued the King, “he is neither perfect nor capable of wearing a crown any more than my son now is. But his occupation prohibits him from either lying or killing mortal men. Would you care for a demonstration?”

Ike gaped but shook his head, not wishing to see any more of the madness that passed for normalcy in the King’s presence. The King nodded gravely and said, “do you now deny what you have wrought?”

Ike snarled, “no, and I rejoice in what I have done. I only regret that my plans did not play out as I had intended.” He smiled coldly, “but you cannot execute me for murder, seeing that the victim still lives.”

The King shook his head sadly, “justice will have its due. You killed my son and the penalty for that is death, regardless of the Master’s mercy in the situation. I will give you a full day to make peace with your Maker and say your farewells before the sentence is carried out, will that suffice?”

The youth howled as if his soul had been ripped from his body and flung himself at the King, but Garren and Bayard easily restrained him and forced him to his knees before his Highness. The King approached, a mournful but hard look in his eyes, his hand luminescent once more. Ike flinched back but the Messengers held him firm. The King placed his hand over the boy’s heart and said, “I give you one day to make your peace and say your farewells, then your heart shall beat no more. Let this be a private matter between us and these witnesses. Your father’s heart need not break to know that his son is a murderer, for it shall be tried enough with your untimely death.” The boy felt his heart beat in time with the pulsating light of the King’s hand and knew the man spoke truly. He shuddered and collapsed into a sobbing heap upon the paving stones.

They left the boy to his misery and withdrew to the far side of the room to confer about what next must be done. The Prince approached his father, smiling eagerly but with a sad light in his eyes, said he, “I must be off Sire, I feel drawn inexorably elsewhere but we shall meet again in days to come I think. This was not how I intended my story to begin, but we have little say in such matters.” The King nodded, smiled proudly, embraced his son, and then sent him on his way in a flash of blue light.

The King then addressed Master Tuttle and the remaining Messengers, “now what of the rest of this messy business? By now the entire kingdom knows the Prince is dead yet we have no corpse for a proper funeral.”

Bayard grinned, “Sire, this is a matter easily rectified, is your entire castle not wrought of mist and light? Have you not ridden horses and conquered beasts of like composition?”

The King smiled ruefully, “aye lad, you have the right of it but my skill is rather limited in that area. Will you assist me?”

The boy bowed, dashed to a sofa along one wall, and returned with the cushions. He laid them in a row, touched them with his glowing hand, and suddenly they shifted in guise from cushions to that of the slain prince. The King nodded his grim approval and sent Master Tuttle off with orders to make the appropriate arrangements. He then glanced at Bayard, “lad, people think you slew your friend, you cannot remain in my service as we have ever known you.” The boy nodded and allowed his features to shift enough that none would now know him. The King nodded his approval and then frowned, “what was that you said about an elfin knight?” Bayard grinned sheepishly and finished his tale.

 

The inconsolable Ike wept until he could weep no more, but the villains who had wrought his ruin paid him no more heed, caught up as they were in their own selfish desires and plots. As they conferred quietly off to one side of the room, the wretched boy gained his feet and dashed silently from the chamber, only the servant stationed outside the door noticing his exit. One day to live?! How wretched, how dreadful, how cruel! He was too young to die, too young to rot forgotten in some dusty tomb. It was not fair! The Prince wasn’t even dead! Fury roused in his heart and he vowed to have his revenge on all of them, but terror quailed back to the fore, how could it be done in a day? Desperately he cried out for rescue, for vengeance, to any ear that might hear. The ear that was always there, always waiting, heard and a hand reached out in comfort, but it was slapped away in derision, not even here, upon the brink of death would he seek solace from Him. No, there must be another way, one that did not include complete surrender of himself and he would find it. A grim smile played across his lips as he hurried from the castle in search of he knew not what.

Twilight was deepening into full dark as his dragging feet brought him to an inn on the outskirts of the city; the music, light, and laughter within drew his agonized heart like a flame the moth. He collapsed wearily upon a bench in a shadowy corner at the back and wondered if this was all his life would amount to, the end of all his grand schemes and high ideals. He sighed heavily and buried his head in his arms, despairing of everything, suddenly feeling mocked by all the joy and life around him. All he wanted was for the darkness to consume him utterly and then his problems would be over. Instead he must sit and wait until his treacherous heart quit beating and that was it, it was a mockery and nothing more. At least send him to the headsman for a proper execution rather than this quiet death with none the wiser, at least let him die infamous if he could not die King.

He suddenly felt burning eyes upon him and lifted his head in fury, ready to assault the insolent fool both verbally and physically for his temerity, and half hoping to get himself killed in the ensuing brawl, but he shuddered when his eyes fell upon the gawker. It was no insolent fool but the most terrifying man he had ever seen or even imagined. He cowered before that gaze and knew fear indeed. “Come,” said the dreadful voice, “we have little time.” Without question or quibble, the boy rose and followed the man silently from the inn, the various patrons flinching back in terror as they passed. At last a malignant hope started to flutter in the boy’s heart, perhaps he could have such power one day. His smile was malice itself as they vanished into the night.

 

The Kingdom was properly horrified at the sudden death of the crown prince, but their response was not overt grief, as might be expected, but rather a sudden wariness and suspicion of their once beloved King, for rumors began to circulate, dreadful tales, that said the King had sacrificed his only child to augment his already terrible powers and had blamed his nephew for the fell deed. Folk began to murmur that things were just as bad as they ever had been under his Lordship and that dreadful Beast, perhaps worse! The entire Kingdom turned out for the burial of the young prince; the crowd was stone faced and grim, but in fear and dread rather than in grief. Some whispered that the deceased was the lucky one, having escaped the horrors to come. Nothing had been seen of the accused nephew in several days, which only fed the rumors further.

“I do not like this, Sire,” said the Captain of the Royal Guard to the King in an undertone as they left the castle proper, leading the funeral procession.

“I do not like it either,” said the King, “but what is to be done?”

Garren shook his head gravely, “nothing but proceed as we have begun and pray the Master gives us wisdom.” They continued on in silence, as solemn and grave as the occasion demanded.

“Lies!” bellowed a fell voice, as the mourners arranged themselves in an orderly fashion at the burial site, “lies, betrayal, deception, and black sorcery!” A tall, broad man swathed all in black stood in the middle of the proceedings, pointing an accusing finger at the King. Snarled he, as he gestured towards the seeming corpse, “behold! Such has been the foundation of his entire reign!” For a moment, nothing happened, but then the image of the slain prince wavered for a moment and then vanished in a flash of azure light, leaving three sofa cushions in its stead. The crowd gasped in astonishment and all eyes turned to the man in black. He laughed darkly, “that is nothing! Even his castle is a mirage!” He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the palace and it too wavered and vanished, leaving the spectators speechless.

“Who are you?” demanded the King, “and what right have you to interfere in matters far outside your ken?”

The man laughed harshly, “ah little King, these matters are very much within my purview, it is you, who dabble in things he should not. I am merely a servant of the people, here to reveal the deception and lies upon which your house and rule is founded. Why, here is your own defamed nephew, whom I rescued from a most unjust future.”

Ike strode boldly out of the crowd, people drawing aside as if stung in passing; he stood arrogantly before the King and sneered, “ah, uncle, have you reconsidered your vile tales? How could you so heartlessly accuse me when it is your own hands that are red with the blood of your own son?” He laughed coldly, “but then who thinks to hear the truth from the mouth of a murderer?” Ike turned eager eyes to the shadowy giant beside him, “what shall come of it, sir?”

The dark man shook his head sadly, “that, the people must decide.” There were many murmurs of fear, astonishment, and worse among the gathered throng, deepening the man’s malicious smile. Addressing the Royal Guard he said, “you had best seize these villains while we sort this matter out.”

Garren turned a stony gaze upon his own men as they stepped forward, a few held back or wore a look of pity or anguish, but far too many eagerly laid hands on the King and his closest associates, including their own Captain. The shadowy man turned to Ike and asked in feigned deference, “what is to be done? How is this matter to be resolved?”

Ike said in insincere regret, “if the King is truly a worker of evil magicks, he should be marked, as will his nefarious associates. And according to his own laws, all such warlocks and sorcerers are deserving of death. We can but mete out the justice required by our laws.” With these words, he stepped forward and grabbed his uncle’s collar, ripping it open and baring the man’s chest. The King glared at his insolent nephew, but said nothing, knowing there was nothing he could say to improve matters. The crowd gasped as they saw the little silver unicorn glint in the sunlight.

Ike shook his head regretfully, “it is as I feared, but how many have joined him in his evil?” He motioned towards the other captives and each was given similar treatment, but only the Captain, Bayard, and Master Tuttle were found so marked. The benevolent nephew waved vaguely towards the others, saying quietly, “bring the traitors forward, but release the others.” He then turned to the shadowy fellow with questioning eyes.

The dark man demanded of the crowd, “what now is to be done? You have seen with your own eyes that your King has sold himself, body and soul, to powers in which no mortal man has a right to dabble. Your own laws prohibit such meddling, yet he sees fit to ignore those proscriptions. What then is to be done with a King who will not obey his own decrees?” The crowd murmured darkly in response and the man smiled in triumph, “very well, let justice be meted out this very day!” The crowd went wild in their bloodlust and eagerness for vengeance. “The Sword,” said the dark man to Ike.

The boy nodded eagerly, and with a malicious grin, approached the pinioned King and drew the Sword from his scabbard. Ike turned to Bayard, saying quietly, “my uncle is not the only one who can pull a sword from a stone.” He ran the Messenger through and then thrust the bloody blade into the nearest rock of any size. Bayard collapsed with a pained gasp, wondering at the irony that his blood would twice avail such a miracle. Proclaimed Ike for all to hear, “let the true and rightful King pull the Sword from the stone!”

The crowd cheered eagerly, all knowing the tale of the King’s ascension but most not having been witness to it and excited to have the matter rectified. Ike motioned for several of the guards to try their hand at drawing the blade forth, just to show that it was no trick, and then set his own hand to the hilt, easily drawing it forth as the spectators broke out in whistles and raucous cheers. He held the blade aloft in triumph and shouted, “let mine be the hand of justice!” The cheers became rabid and crescendoed as Ike thrust the blade through the King’s abdomen. He held the bloody blade aloft once more as the King collapsed with a groan and the crowd continued to cheer. He then motioned for the two remaining prisoners to be brought forward. Garren and Tuttle were forced to their knees before the murderous boy, who killed the Captain with a quick thrust, but said to the Secretary, loudly enough for all to hear, “you need not die like this, Master Tuttle, your skills could be of great use in solidifying my reign. Recant of your villainy and I shall be gracious.”

Master Tuttle glanced at the unmoving form of Garren beside him, at the gasping Bayard, and the stricken King in his moribund agony, then he met the insolent boy’s gaze with stony eyes, “I am not the villain sir, but if such acts are considered justice, then happily do I resign my position…” His comments were cut short by a final thrust of Ike’s sword, silencing him forever.

Ordered the dark man, “string up the carcasses, that all might see the price of such villainy!” The guards jumped to comply as the spectators reached new levels of jubilation and excitement, forgetting completely the tyranny which they had endured under his Lordship and from which the Master had rescued them but a few years prior, and happily thrusting themselves again into such despotism and darkness. As the guards approached, the rejected King at last lay still and with a final gasp, Bayard too fell into darkness. Most of the gathered throng withdrew with their new King and his shadowy advisor for the coronation and feast to follow, but a very few fled from that place, knowing the horrors had only begun. An elfin knight watched from a distance, a smirk on his face, he turned his horse and returned to the Wood, to inform his Lady of all that had happened, leaving the dead to the carrion fowl that were even then gathering in the trees and circling hopefully overhead.

But only one little magpie was bold enough to approach the slain men, sitting on the shoulder of the murdered King and seeming to whisper quietly in his ear. Suddenly the rope broke and the inert form tumbled to the ground, as the magpie took wing and fluttered to the ground beside the prone King. The bird breathed full on the face of the dead man, and suddenly there was life in his being once more. Kyan blinked in confusion, his vision full of nothing but a small black and white feathered creature, but the eyes were not native to any mortal bird. “Easy child,” said He quietly, “you have a decision to make.”

Kyan sat up and glanced about, grimacing in horror at his murdered friends, bowing his head in dismay, he said, “have I failed utterly, Lord?”

“Nonsense,” chirruped the little bird, “you have remained faithful, it is your people and nephew that have broken faith. Now what is to come of the matter?”

Kyan frowned, “I thought death would put all that behind me? They have rejected me and chosen a new King; they want nothing more to do with me!”

“Or so they think,” said the Bird quietly, “I too was rejected, not just by a Kingdom, but by the entire world, yet they desired nothing more, even if they knew it not. They think their new King is what they want, but soon he will prove otherwise and they will long for their True King on that day. As to death, what is that to Me?”

Kyan gazed off into the distance, he could hear the sounds of excitement and merrymaking coming from the distant city. He had lost everything: his son, his crown, his Kingdom, even his life; he owed them nothing, but they were his people and they would suffer if he stood aside, even though they had forsaken him, he could not in good faith abandon them even so. He met the eyes of that persistent little fowl, and for a moment, he understood the reason He came to suffer and die for wandering, faithless humanity, at least as much as any mortal could comprehend of such lofty matters. Kyan said nothing, but the Bird needed no verbal answer, for He knew the hearts of His children and of all mankind. “Good!” sang out the little creature, “then there is still hope for this traitorous people. I am ever with you child, remember that, whatever betide. Fare thee well!” Suddenly Kyan was alone, sitting on the blood soaked ground, his three dearest friends hanging by their necks from the surrounding trees.

He stood suddenly, angry that such valiant and faithful men should meet such an end. But what was death to them? He smiled grimly as he drew forth his belt knife and cut down the corpses. His hand began to glow, easily rousing Bayard and Garren, but he paused over Tuttle, unsure of how to proceed. The Messengers joined him, sharing his conundrum, for though Marked, Tuttle had never seen the Stone or sworn his life to this particular service. Garren smiled sadly, “it won’t hurt to try, at worst nothing will happen.”

And nothing did happen, save the unicorn on Master Tuttle’s chest flared blue in response, but life did not return. The King said with a sigh, “he’s truly gone then.”

Garren placed a reassuring hand on Kyan’s shoulder, “from the mortal sphere, yes, but a human soul is made to last forever. We’ll see him again one day, and until then, he’s safe in our Master’s keeping. What of you?”

Kyan smiled wryly, “what of me?”

Garren nodded, “will you be content to roam the world, a nameless Messenger?”

Kyan snorted, “someday perhaps, but for now I have a Kingdom to save.”

Bayard gaped, “but I thought all that was now behind you?”

Kyan’s smile became grim, “perhaps it should be, but I will not abandon my people to their folly, especially when the Master Himself called me back to mortal life to do just that.” The Messengers exchanged an eager smile and then went to one knee before the resurrected King, who gladly accepted their renewed pledge of service on his behalf.

“What are your orders, Highness,” asked Garren eagerly.

Kyan shook his head, “perhaps we should refrain from such formalities until I again have a throne and court that require them.” He turned sad eyes upon Tuttle, “first we must see to our dead, then we shall see about the Kingdom.” They buried Master Tuttle in a quiet little glade, and as they finished the formalities, a quaint cottage, quite at home in the tranquil setting, suddenly appeared. They exchanged a joyous look and hastened in to the fortuitous abode, wherein the Captain and his Aide greeted them warmly and urged them to partake of the light lunch and waiting tea.

 

Refreshed, heartened, and comfortable, the King and his army of two settled in to plot with the Captain of the Messengers and his Aide in All Things Military, Martial, and Otherwise. Guyare shook his head in dismay when Kyan told the tale, said he, “don’t the fools remember life under his Lordship?”

Garren said quietly, “men have short and fickle memories, especially during times of peace and prosperity; they soon forget that life is not always a summer picnic, but begin to feel that that is exactly what they should expect and deserve.”

Kyan sat back in his chair, “how am I to reclaim the crown if they don’t want me?”

Bren smiled grimly, “perhaps letting them enjoy their new King for a time is all that is needed to convince them otherwise?”

Bayard nodded, “my thoughts exactly, but what exactly are these new villains?”

Garren scratched his chin thoughtfully, “a good question, certainly not mortal men, else the King’s sentence upon the boy should have come to pass. And no mere man can so easily unravel something wrought of our Master’s light.”

“Hunters?” asked Bren.

“No,” said Garren, “though something of equal power and malice, but they don’t strike from the shadows nor are they shape-shifters. Perhaps a type of undead sorcerer?”

Bayard shivered, “Hunters are bad enough, now we must deal with some sort of warlock as well?”

Garren smiled broadly, “I told you no two of your missions would ever be the same, and our Enemy is always trying to find new ways to undermine our Master’s plans, including the invention of new weapons and foes.”

“At least I’ll never get bored,” said the boy dryly.

Bren arched an eyebrow, “you’ve had it quite easy the last few years I should think, lolling about the royal palace and gadding about with the crown prince.”

Bayard laughed, “perhaps I have, but after my first few adventures, I will not say it was unwelcome.” They all laughed at this, knowing well the strange tales with which the boy began his service with the Messengers.

Once the party quieted their mirth, Kyan frowned, “can such creatures legally rule a Kingdom of men? The Messengers are thus prohibited, what of such fiends?”

Garren snorted, “when has the legality of anything stopped our Enemy from doing it? Of course it is forbidden, but that just makes it all the more enticing.” He eagerly touched his sword hilt, “but then it also makes our interference all the more necessary.”

“So we are just going to march into the middle of Gormanth and challenge the usurpers to a duel?” said Bayard in wonder.

“No,” said Kyan quietly, “we have an adventure to be about while the usurpers make themselves at home. Once the Kingdom is thoroughly convinced of their folly, we can ride to the rescue.”

“And what mad scheme do you have in mind?” asked Bren curiously.

Kyan smiled eagerly, “we need to find an heir to the throne.”

Bayard asked, “you aren’t thinking about getting married again are you?”

Kyan smiled sadly, his wife’s death still a painful memory, “no, we’ll have to find a ready made heir.” His smile grew wry, “any peasant or beggar will probably suffice.”

Bren chuckled, remembering a certain wide-eyed boy that had once appeared at his very door, “not just any peasant, lad.” He chivied the lot of them to bed ere anyone could offer any more excuses or protests. In the morning, all rose refreshed and eager for the adventure to come, surprised at the sudden sense of freedom they felt. Bren laughed, “you’ve all been tied down in one place for far too long. You’ve got itchy feet!”

Garren smiled ruefully, “true, Messengers aren’t meant to put down roots.”

Kyan sighed sadly, “and what roots I had have been pulled firmly out of the soil and I don’t think our quest involves repotting the plant.”

“What are you saying, lad?” asked Garren quietly.

Kyan said thoughtfully, “I will rescue my people from their foolishness, if that is their wish, but I do not think I will be the one to rule them in the coming years.”

Bren laughed, “we all must pass into legend lad, each in our turn, but fear not, you’ve plenty of legends to make even so.”

Kyan brightened, “I forget that I need not simply ride off into the sunset at the end of the tale, rather I can find one story after another to lose myself in, if I so wish.”

“Or you could jump into a story even bigger than anything this mortal world has to offer,” said Bren quietly, “you mortals have no idea what lurks beyond the walls of the world.”

Bayard grinned, “but you came back.”

Bren scowled good-naturedly at his minion, “because the Master asked it of me, had I my druthers, you’d never have seen me more, at least this side of eternity, you scamp!”

Kyan laughed, “I believe that is our cue to leave, we do not wish to anger our merry host more than politeness demands.” Warm farewells were exchanged all around and then the party set out, afoot but well supplied. None were surprised to find the world utterly changed as they exited the little cottage, for they stood on a stark mountainside rather than in a young and pleasant wood.

“Back to the Stone?” said Kyan as they set off.

“So it seems,” said Garren, “for all the best stories have it at their very heart.”

“A truer word was never spoken,” said Kyan, his heart suddenly aching for that bloody stone, all of his problems, griefs, and sorrows seemed rather insignificant in its shadow. With this strange comfort, he set forth eagerly for the rock that had changed the world, or rather what had happened upon it, many long years ago. His friends hastened after, their hearts too drawn towards that infamous stone.

They found the Stone, where it had sat for centuries, but it was not alone, as was its wont, rather a great crowd had gathered, as if some event, great or terrible, was about to commence. There were murmurs of astonishment and no few gasps of horror as the late King was recognized; all drew back in horror from the ghost, no doubt at home on this haunted mountain. They approached the Stone, a great empty circle having opened up around them, for none dared come too close, save those closest to Stone, whom even a ghost come for vengeance could not disrupt in whatever it was they intended. The usurper King looked up in surprise, but not in disappointment, to see who this interrupter of his grand exhibition was. Ike smiled maliciously at his uncle’s approach and sneered, “come back to haunt me then? Good luck, fool ghost! Know you not that you cannot touch such as I?”

Kyan replied quietly, eyeing the quivering figure bound to the stone, “I did not come to stop you. What is it you are about, anyway?”

Ike straightened from leaning over the boy upon the Stone, momentarily sheathing his dagger, “do you know what has happened in the Kingdom since your demise?” Kyan shook his head, as Ike continued, “it has not rained in two years! The peasants grow restless and begin to talk of rebelling against their accursed King, even though they know such foolishness would be suicide. I have shown them no mercy and have not made their lives easy, yet they refuse to be cowed. Thus I set forth to this place to prove to them that I am not accursed as they call me; I will use this boy’s blood to appease the gods that it might rain again.”

“Why him?” asked Kyan.

Ike shrugged, “no reason in particular, he was available; naught but a ragged shepherd lad met upon the road hither.”

“Take me in his stead,” said Kyan, tears strong in his voice.

“You?!” gasped Ike, “you are naught but a ghost, an apparition come back to annoy me without a drop of blood to his name.”

Kyan stepped close enough to his nephew that the boy might reach out and touch him, had he a wish, said he, “I am no ghost, but a mortal man, though one raised from the dead. Do not harm the boy.”

Ike frowned, “hold out your hand.” Kyan complied and received a dagger slash across his palm for his trouble, but the welling blood and grimace of pain were proof enough for the increasingly eager Ike, “you really mean it? These peasants might be desperate enough to even ask you to be their King again if this does not work!”

Kyan bowed his head, “these are my people, it is my duty to lay down my life if it will spare theirs. I will not incite a civil war nor see innocent blood shed to no avail. Take my life if it will spare the boy, though I warn you, what you intend will not end well.”

“Bah!” scoffed Ike, “blood and magic wrap themselves around this ancient rock like vines around a tree! This is no natural drought, therefore a supernatural cure must be found. The bloodlust of the lesser gods must be satisfied, and a King is a much better gift than a scruffy shepherd boy! Lay yourself down on the stone and let us see if you truly have the nerve to go through with it.”

Kyan exchanged a sad look with his two companions, the pity and horror in their eyes nearly unmanned him, but he approached the stone as two of the King’s guardsmen roughly shoved the bound lad aside. He laid himself upon that crude altar, as many a Messenger had done before him, but this was no illusion to be stopped at the pivotal moment. Ike smiled triumphantly and raised his dagger, and with a scornful laugh mocked his victim, “poor little King, giving your life for naught!” With that, he plunged the dagger into Kyan’s heart as utter darkness momentarily covered the mountainside and a roar of terror arose from the gathered crowd.

“What have you done?” bellowed the minotaur, charging down the slope even as the darkness lessened to a gloomy twilight.

Ike snarled, “what I must, Beast! Who are you to challenge me?”

“The Warder of the Stone,” said the creature grimly, “will you repent of your evil, or will mine be the hand of justice?”

“Justice?” scoffed the boy, “I am King; justice is what I proclaim it to be. Have you any idea what I could do to you, had I a mind?”

The Beast hefted his axe, “let us see how dangerous you truly are then!” He charged the ersatz King, who hissed like a frightened snake, but held his ground, but not his form. Suddenly a great wyrm crouched where Ike had once been, his true, hideous form revealed to the world. This was too much for the onlookers, with another horrified scream, they stampeded down the mountainside and away from the looming battle. The melee was long and intense, but at last the Warder smote the wyrm and it did not rise again, said he with a shudder, “a grim foe indeed, let us hope our enemy does not produce such villains with any regularity!”

Garren nodded, “indeed my friend, but well fought!” All eyes then turned to the murdered King and the wide-eyed hostage, the only ones remaining on the slope, save Bayard. The Warder cast aside his bloodied axe and lay a glowing hand upon the unmoving form.

Kyan roused again to life, a rueful but triumphant smile on his face as he greeted his comrades, a King no longer. He drew his dagger and approached the still bound shepherd, who flinched back at his approach, but could not escape the man’s blade, though he had no need, for only the ropes fell afoul of the dagger. The boy fainted in relief and it took some minutes to wake him, when he awoke, he still could not believe what had happened.

“It is all too much,” said he, overwrought.

“Yes,” said Kyan with a smile, “but that does not make it any less true, and to make matters worse, you have to decide whether you want to be this land’s next King.” The boy’s only answer was to fall senseless once more.

The Warder shook his head in amusement, “you really need to learn how delicate these poor mortals can be, sir.”

Garren chuckled, “you are certainly one to talk, playing on our worst fears to frighten us away from your precious Stone.”

The Warder raised an eyebrow, “that is another matter entirely.” Thankfully their mirth had died away by the time the boy roused once more.

Said the lad with a sigh, “I’m not sure I want to be King, especially after today!”

Kyan nodded grimly, “that might be true wisdom, for this is a hard hearted and fickle folk, but I hope they might yet see sense and turn to the Master once more.”

The boy shivered, “the past two years have been a nightmare for the commonfolk, the tales my mother told of life under his Lordship seem bright by comparison, yet none seem to remember your reign, Sire, or at least they dare not speak of it openly.”

Kyan grimaced, “I am a King no longer lad, just a man about the Master’s business. As for our comparative reigns, I do not doubt things have been dark indeed, yet however much they regret their decision regarding the Kingship, pride will keep them from admitting it. They are also unlikely to support another King sent to them in the Master’s name. If you accept the mantle, you will meet resistance, if not the same fate as I did.”

“As to that,” said the boy with an eager light in his eyes, “how did you survive, not once but twice?”

Kyan smiled sadly, “nay lad, I did not survive, but rather my Master’s grace redeemed me from death’s cold grasp.”

“That is what I want,” said the boy desperately, “King or not.”

“Then kneel before the stone,” said the Warder solemnly. The boy knelt, swearing himself then and there into the Master’s service.

After, said he with wide eyes, “if it is our Master’s will, I will take up the crown, though I do not think I shall long be in possession of it.”

“Perhaps not,” said the Warder, standing over the yet kneeling boy, “but even so, it is a great responsibility.” His hands began to glow and suddenly a silver circlet appeared in his hands, which he set on the boy’s head, saying, “rise Highness.”

The Messenger’s bowed as the King rose, and then Garren advised, “we had best descend and see what has come of your subjects, no doubt they’ll get up to some mischief if left too long to themselves.”

The Warder bid them ado, Kyan adjusted his features slightly, happy to be in possession of that useful skill at long last, and then they all mounted up, Bayard having produced horses out of mist and light for them all, the new King watched it all with wonder and dread, astonished at all he had seen that day. They hastened down the slope, the gloom their constant companion. They found the fugitives clumped at the foot of the mountain, the most important and influential men in the Kingdom among them, along with many a curious peasant. They looked up in eagerness and dread as they heard the sound of hooves upon the stony ground. A knight in dark armor rode out of the throng, sword in hand.

The small party drew rein and waited his approach, the King at the fore. Said the knight, sitting his horse a polite distance from the new arrivals, “what news from the mountain?”

The boy exchanged a nervous look with his companions, but they nodded encouragingly as he turned to face the knight, said he with surprising boldness, “the usurper king is no more, he has suffered the fate due his crimes.”

“Ah,” said the knight in triumph, turning to the watching crowd, “then let me assume the crown as I have proposed!”

“No,” said the boy, for all to hear, “I am your new King.”

“You?” scoffed the knight, laughing with the rest of the onlookers, “have we not had enough of all such blood and magic? What say you, my people?”

Suddenly the entire throng erupted in derisive shouts, demanding they would have no King but one of their own choosing and that the knight was their chosen sovereign. The knight motioned them to silence, as Kyan broke in, “have the past two years taught you nothing? Or the years under his Lordship? Were you not happy and content under the rule of the Master’s appointed King?”

The crowd hissed at this, the knight interrupted and their derision quieted, “a poor argument, that! If he was such a great and mighty King, why was he so easily overthrown? Why was rescue not sent during the awful years under the usurper?”

Kyan shook his head, “because you chose your own King and lived to regret it; it was your own folly that caused your troubles, even if you choose not to see it.” The booing and hissing trebled, forcing Kyan to silence.

The knight raised his sword and motioned towards the boy, “come boy, let us settled this like civilized men in trial by combat, the winner will take the throne.”

The boy shook his head, “nay sir, for I know not the use of a sword and I will not rule this folk if they will not have me willingly.”

“Very well,” shrugged the knight, motioning to the crowd, he asked, “shall the boy be king?” He was utterly rejected and the knight heft his sword, “the people have spoken.”

As he struck down the would-be king, the boy gasped with his last breath, “I thought we were civilized men?”

The knight drew back his bloody sword and laughed, “I can’t take any chances.” But the boy did not hear. With a scornful glance at the dismayed Messengers, the knight turned his horse and rode back towards his eager subjects. Garren dismounted and took up the dead King, then the whole party rode off into the encroaching mist.

Wakened again to life, the boy said in wonder and dismay, “so much for my reign, what will come of them do you think?”

Garren shook his head, “they’ll live to regret this choice also, likely the Kingdom will soon collapse into civil war and rebellion and eventually it shall fall utterly, only to rise again with a new name in an age to come, but that is not for us to wonder at or worry about. Such mortal concerns are no longer within our purview, rather we have our Master’s business to be about. Welcome home, lad.”

The boy smiled widely, realizing that the fate of a mortal kingdom was of very little importance in the grand scheme of eternity, for all such were temporal and ephemeral things, whereas a soul was made to last forever. Kingdoms would rise and fall, but their Master’s grace was eternal and unchanging, and those who embraced it had nothing to fear, through all the ages yet to come and in whatever came after.

 

 

 

 

Marked:

 

He lay in his blood on the hillside, a dark figure ghosted away from the tragic scene, little more than a deeper shadow amid the thick veils of mist that draped the eerie predawn world. The scattered and terrified sheep bleated disconsolately, their voices muted by the brume. Gradually the animals forgot their initial terror and took up a calming mouthful of grass upon which to chew whilst they mulled over the horrors of the morning, but as philosophical as such beasts are, the first mouthful required another and then another, their contemplations soon forgotten completely in their pursuit of fodder. The sun rose, driving away the concealing mists and the shadow of death that lay heavy upon the stricken boy. He blinked in astonishment and slowly sat up, wondering how he could be so foolish as to fall asleep at his post and allow his charges to scatter hither and yon over the hills.

As he stood to pursue his far flung flock, a horrified gasp escaped his lips as he realized it had not been a wretched nightmare, the deadly shadow had been all too real, but then how did he stand alive upon the hilltop under the sun? Was he alive? He studied the ashen grey flesh of his hands and thought them far more suited to a corpse than a living man, but his chest rose and fell with the steady rhythm of his breathing and his heart beat faithfully in his breast; he was not dead, yet. Blood had indeed been spilled, it glistened wetly upon the herbage, scarlet in the new risen sun, but he could find no lingering wound upon his person. He frowned, wondering what it meant. With a heavy sigh, he hied himself down to the beck, dreading what he would see therein.

In a quiet pool, he glimpsed something he thought only to see in a nightmare, but it was indeed his own face: ashen grey, the flesh flaccid and pasty, the eyes dead and lifeless. He looked a walking corpse yet he was certain he wasn’t dead, no matter his appearance. A gravelly voice spoke beside him, heavy with emotion, as a firm hand settled fondly on his shoulder; the boy looked again into the pool, his ancient guardian’s face was reflected beside his own, creased with sorrow while an ill-concealed dread lurked just beneath the surface of the usually unflappable man’s countenance. Spoke the ancient shepherd, “the tales be true lad, you’ve fallen headlong into them.”

Kyan turned pleading eyes upon his master, “but I don’t want to be part of a story, why can’t I just mind the sheep as you have done, a nameless hill shepherd all my days?”

A slight, sad smile touched the man’s lips while tears glimmered unshed in his eyes, “we all have a story lad, and we have very little say in the writing thereof. We do have certain choices we must make, but the adventures we have and the characters we meet are beyond our control. As this morning testifies.”

“What has happened?” gasped the horrified boy, suddenly remembering the morning’s ghastly incident, momentarily forgotten with the advent of his guardian.

The old man shook his head, “a thing I thought merely a tale bantered about by old wives round a winter fire, but here it is under the morning sun, plain before my eyes. You’ve been Marked lad, for death or worse.”

“M…m…marked?!” stuttered the aghast boy, “what am I to do? What is to come of me?”

The aging shepherd said quietly, “that I do not know lad, the tales tell but little. They say a shadow comes upon a lad unawares, steals all his youth and vigor, for what purpose is not said, and then leaves him to inevitably die.”

The boy frowned, “why not just kill me outright?” His frown deepened, “I feel quite well actually, if it came for my vigor, it certainly failed in its attempt.” He glanced again into the pool, “perhaps my looks are forever ruined, but there is life in me yet.” He smiled hopefully, the expression ghastly in that corpselike face, “perhaps I can just go on the same as ever with none the wiser? We live quite alone among these scattered hills and the sheep won’t care.”

The old man sighed, “it cannot be lad, for if anyone save myself should glimpse your face, worse will come of it, that and the tales hint that you will bring a curse upon all the folk hereabouts should you linger long among mortal men.”

The boy gaped, “among mortal men?! How can I get any further from civilization, save perhaps to hie myself into the wilds?” His face fell as realization dawned, “I have no place among men any longer.”

The man put an encouraging hand on the lad’s back, “nay lad, but that is not to say you do not have a place, somewhere. This was no random act of violence, but rather an attempt to either destroy or corrupt you before you could discover what your true destiny is.” His eyes gazed longingly over the distant hills, “and it lies out there, somewhere. But you’ll have to go out and find it.”

The boy faced the old man, tears in his eyes, “but what will come of you?”

The ancient man smiled sadly, “aye lad, I survived quite well ere you came into my keeping and I’ll do just that once you’ve left me, but happily I’ll have the memory of our time together to keep me company when you’ve gone.” He shivered, “remember the curse!”

The boy frowned thoughtfully, “what do you suppose the curse is?”

“Someone or something sent that vile shadow after you this morning and I have no doubt that the same power will not rest until it has accomplished whatever it intends with you,” said the elderly gentleman, “and likely will send other slaves and minions to see that its ends are attained, regardless of the cost to you and the folk hereabouts.”

The boy sighed heavily, “then I have no choice but to go, but where?”

The old man shook his head but again gazed longingly upon the distant hills that rose in their innumerable ranks before vanishing upon the far horizon, “hie yourself into the hills lad and maybe you’ll even find hope therein.”

The boy smiled slightly, for a moment catching the old shepherd’s mood, but then frowned again in dismay, “if it must be so, let it be so. Fare you well old friend, and thank you for everything!”

“Aye lad,” said the old man, brushing away an unbidden tear, “now get ye gone ere one of us changes our mind!”

The boy smiled warmly, or tried with his flaccid features, and then vanished over the nearest hill before his courage gave out or his heart betrayed him; the old man watched wistfully long after the boy had disappeared beyond a distant ridge.

 

‘Over the hills and far away,’ as innumerable old tales and songs were wont to say, mused the boy as he trudged along, but what sort of a story had he fallen into? It felt far more a nightmare or one of those ghastly tales told round the fire after the children were thought long abed. The grass was green upon the hills and the sun bright in the sky as the larks sang overhead, but the boy felt none of their joy, once so vital to his being. He suddenly realized that perhaps the old man had spoken truly, but rather than stealing his physical energy, the thing had taken his ability to enjoy life and the world around him. His heart lay as numb and cold within him as a seed in its wintry tomb, but perhaps his heart could bloom once more, as would the seed when spring came at last. But how?

He shivered, for he knew he would not be alone in his pilgrimage, for the ancient shepherd’s assertion that he had not seen the last of such shadowy assailants was something he somehow knew true to his very soul. He turned his thoughts hopefully back to the picture of the seed in its winter slumber; there was so much hope and potential there, though it seemed so small and dead at first glance. Was that a picture of himself as well? Was there some potential there, some possibility that someone wanted to avert, corrupt, or destroy? But what and why? And who? He was a peasant, and worse, a shepherd. He was neither a warrior nor a sage, he had nothing that anyone could find even remotely interesting, let alone threatening. He glanced at his ashen hands and shook his head, but why go to such trouble, why not kill him outright? There came no answer but the soughing of the wind in the grass and the song of a lark on the wing, mocking in its beauty and joy. The boy trudged on.

While the sun was out he felt a little joy, he could entertain hopeful thoughts, but as the afternoon wore away and a thin veil of clouds obscured the stars, he felt his heart too draped in utter and inescapable night. But he did not cease his strivings, for even in the pitch dark, he found he could still find his way and his limbs were nowise weary though his heart was sore within him. He felt eyes in the darkness, watching him with contempt and scorn, laughing at the futility of his strivings; he could almost hear their mocking laughter, but he trudged ever onwards, determined not to give in to the fear and despair that were all about him.

He stood at the crest of a great hill as the sun rose in a splendor of pink and gold, his disquiet night for a moment forgotten in a yearning for something that whispered from beyond the sun’s rising, from a place beyond the walls of the world he knew. Shaking himself at the uncanny thought, he descended the far side and vanished into the retreating mists in the vale below. So it went for three days: fleeting hopes were entertained while the sun was his merry companion only to be replaced by fear and dismay as the whispering dread of unseen shades and phantoms amid the night’s starless gloom took its place. Where he was going, Kyan did not know, but he pressed on with all his heart, strangely requiring neither rest nor water nor food and able to travel even in the darkest night. He knew very little of this strange world he now inhabited, save that the realm of mortal men was no longer his own, but he was naught but an indifferent observer upon the rim of something he could not yet comprehend, towards which he was hastening with all his being or perhaps fleeing from it; he didn’t know which, he knew nothing save that he must go onwards, ever onwards.

That night his nightmares became horrifying reality, more so even than that fateful morning when he had been assaulted by a fiend unknown upon the misty hillside, for a great black-clad horseman loomed out of the gloom, the beast’s eyes glowing like angry coals in the night. “My master has marked you as his own, slave,” boomed the fell voice, “fulfill now your doom and destiny.”

The boy shuddered in his inmost being with loathing and revulsion, knowing full well that this monster’s master, whoever or whatever it was, could not so easily lay claim to a mortal soul and that whatever betide, Kyan was not about to grant him power over his own. The boy fell to his knees in dread, buried his head in his arms, and quivered upon the heath, waiting for his doom to fall. Morning found him still huddled thus. He looked up in astonishment, for the grim horseman was gone! But with another shudder, he realized the choice was not, but still, it was a choice; he must choose, but he did not know what the other alternatives were, only that he would not choose the darkness. With a sigh, he gained his feet and began again his interminable journey into the very heart of an enigma.

That night he looked upon the cold high beauty of the stars, the first time they were visible during his travels, and wondered if he might ever have the chance to join in their song, but alas, he was doomed to trudge the mortal earth yet never more to take part in its joy or sorrow. He might be wrought of flesh and blood, but he was little more than a ghost, a memory, a creature of dust and ash. He bowed his head for a moment and then cried aloud to the indifferent stars, shaking a fist, “what then is the point? Why could not death have been my portion! Why must I endure in this unending twilight, ne’er more to see the dawn?”

An odd sound, as if a sparrow tried sorely to stifle his laughter, drew the boy’s attention back to the immediate vicinity and the glint of bright eyes in the starlight suddenly had his full attention. Said a magpie, perched at eye level in a weedy tree, in rather amused tones, “are you then omniscient lad, knowing all ends? What was and what will be and what might have been?”

The boy dropped his gaze, chagrin strong in his voice, “I know nothing at all.”

The bird did not hide his chuckle at this, but rather said in a pleased tone, “and that is the beginning of wisdom. Now as to your little problem, perhaps I can avail you. Are you certain you would have preferred death at the hands of your attacker? An ancient folk, forgotten now, buried their kings and great men under this very hill. Will you crawl now upon an empty bier and molder with them, forgotten in the dark?”

The boy’s head snapped up and he met the bird’s eyes with an incredulous frown, “when you put it that way, I do not think that the better fate. But what then is to come of me? Why this interminable existence?”

“It is not as I would have had it,” said the bird matter-of-factly, “but seldom do matters play out as I would wish in this broken world, sundered as it is from that which was originally intended for it. You were plucked out of place and time, driven from your mortal life before the Time when My Enemy discovered what it was I intended. He loves nothing better than to destroy or corrupt My plans, such has it been since before your world was. You have refused his overt attempts at intimidation, despair, and fear, but you have not yet made a choice. I set it before you now: you may choose death as your lot and free yourself of all this, for such is the birthright and doom of all men, you may still fling yourself freely into the arms of My Enemy and see what comes of it, or you may continue on in your journey, but rather than a nameless and clueless wanderer, I will give you a name and a purpose.”

“I hardly know you, sir,” said the boy, trembling, but whether in wonder or dread, he could not say.

The bird chuckled like a stream in flood, “nay lad, all men know Me, whether they would admit it even to themselves is another matter entirely. You may not know the particulars, but you know enough to make a decision. You felt and rejected the utter evil of My Enemy when confronted by his grim horseman, so is it you have known Me, or at least suspected something of the sort, all your days. Have I not written it upon your very heart? Do the stars not bear witness in their courses above? Does not the lark sing of it? Do not the new lambs upon the green hills testify to it? Did My Enemy not try to deaden your heart to that very song with his grim weapon? You do not yet know My Name, but I have always known yours. But I will not force you to come to Me, rather I would have you come running eagerly, as a lost child to his father.” He smiled then and the whole world seemed to laugh in very joy to see it, “for am I not the Father of all; He who wrought the very stars?”

The boy was on his knees, tears streaming down his face as these wonderful and terrible thoughts assaulted him, quavered he, “but who am I that You would even look upon me?”

“Have I not known you and called you Beloved, even before the stars were lit?” said the bird quietly, “did I not know, even then, that mankind would rebel against Me and that the price of reconciliation was death, even then did I not agree to pay that awful price?”

The boy’s tears had ceased and he stared at this small, feathered creature with wide, aghast eyes, “the tales are true!”

“Some of them,” chuckled the bird, “the most important ones, anyway. Some tall tales are just that. Now what of your choice?”

The boy shook his head, gaped anew, and said, “how can there be any other choice? But I am so wretched and pathetic, what possible use could You make of me?”

The magpie flitted to the topmost branch of the spindly tree and laughed merrily, “leave that to Me child, if I can form the stars out of naught, think what I could do with a willing heart! I have paid the blood price for your freedom, it remains only for you to accept it, if you will.”

The boy goggled anew, remembering the tale as his aged guardian once told it, of the Prince and Lord of all creation and beyond, who had stepped into the broken, mortal world to take on flesh and the attendant sorrow and pain therewith. Of His life amongst the meanest and poorest of men, His words of life and encouragement, and the hideous death to which His jealous rivals put Him, but which was not the end of the story but only the beginning. For death itself died that day and all men could find hope at last, at least if they were willing to accept it. Kyan had thought it just one of many tales told round the fire of an evening, but he now knew, to his very soul, that it was also true. But how to accept such a great sacrifice on his behalf? How could he not? He knelt there before the little bird and when he lifted his head, the creature was gone, but so too were the deadness and heaviness that had afflicted his heart since that dreadful morning. He stood then, the sun beginning to rise, and went his way rejoicing, so much so that a passing lark envied him in his joy. Not so the dark horseman hiding in the lee of the hill, he watched the doomed wretch with a malice and contempt he could ill contain. He smiled like death itself, for night would come again.

 

Why had he never taken the tales seriously? Kyan stopped suddenly and frowned at an oblivious daisy as he wondered how it was that the thing that suddenly seemed the most important in life and beyond it was once little more than just another fairy tale to his thinking. He grinned wryly and set forth again upon his perplexing journey, knowing death had a strange way of putting the important things in life in sharp perspective. While he was not technically dead, he was lost evermore to the life he had once known. What lay ahead was anyone’s guess, yet he felt he could trust this One, who numbered the stars, fully in such matters, for did He not bring forth life and maintain it even in this fallen state? Had He not fully paid the price to redeem sundered creation and all therein? It was all so great and marvelous he could hardly take it in, yet his heart had never known such joy! He still resembled a walking corpse, but his soul was anything but dead within him. Had Spring come at last?

So it was he went along all day, rejoicing as he never had before, despite his odd circumstances, but as evening fell and the shadows of night gathered round, he began to wonder if his natal faith could survive another such night. He was not surprised to see that grim horseman once more, glowering on the path before him, what little patience and forbearance the creature might once have possessed was forgotten in this treacherous wretch’s dealings with his fell master’s greatest foe. The boy would bend knee this night or he would die, there could be no other outcome. But instead of cringing to the ground in terror, the boy felt an inexplicable courage rising in his heart, had not his new Master the power to overcome just such a fiend as this?

The horseman did not even bother to ask, he could see the rebellious fire burning in those dead eyes and knew there could be but one answer. He grinned in triumphant malice and raised his sword while the horse reared and screamed its fury as the boy waited for salvation to come. “No,” said the dark knight suddenly, sharply reining in his horse and sheathing his blade, “it will not be so easy.” His smile became malevolence itself, “if your master is so great and mighty, let him rescue you from this living death! Let us see if your faith survives a thousand years of such lonely and pointless wandering.” He cruelly spurred the horse, leaving Kyan alone in the night, frowning after the vanished horseman. He had hoped for salvation but not from the villain himself! It was all quite puzzling, and what was that about endless wanderings? Certainly he was not doomed to such a fate!

With a shrug, he set forth anew but with steps less cheerful than they had been. The eyes and whispers still haunted his steps, their scorn and malice multiplied tenfold, as if they thought him the utmost of fools. He tried to ignore them but that only seemed to make their mocking scrutiny all the worse. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to trudge on when he wanted to simply lie down and despair. Where was his new Master’s joy when it was so desperately needed? But there came no answer and there was naught to do but walk on, ever on.

Morning found the boy grim but determined to press on, all his former joy forgotten as if it was a dream upon waking, but he knew, somehow, that to turn back or give up could only end in tragedy, so he fought down his panic and concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other and repeating it ad infinitum. At least the shadows did not whisper when the sun graced the sky, and soon he felt his terror of the previous night melting away as he lost himself in the beauty of the day and the wondrous possibilities that lay at journey’s end.

“Monster!” the cry of challenge rang in the dells and floated on the fitful breeze.

Kyan glanced about anxiously, trying to see the fiend in question, but finally gave up and focused his attention on the knight before him with a quizzical frown, seeing no such creature, only then realizing the warrior’s stern glare was directed at himself. He raised his empty hands and said sheepishly, “please Sir Knight, I am no villain, merely a peasant lad fallen afoul of a grim curse.”

The knight raised his faceplate and frowned in consternation at the boy, if boy he was. Said he, rather gruffly, “you are a well spoken fiend, if fiend you are. Only renegades and those that pursue them roam these wild highlands lad, what then are you doing up here alone?”

Kyan could not help but grin impishly, “you yourself thought me a monster just now Sir Knight, and I am sure you have seen monsters and villains aplenty, what are the vast majority of more ignorant folk to think of me, who have little ventured beyond the confines of their own villages and fields?”

“Truly spoken,” said the Knight, “but what is to come of this meeting?”

The boy shrugged, “I am off upon an adventure sir, though I know little enough of what it entails, perhaps the very lifting of the curse that lies heavy upon me. What of you?”

The knight nodded thoughtfully, “I rode out, adventure bent, though no particular errand or quest did I pursue. Perhaps I shall accompany you for a time, therein might lie adventure indeed.”

“Gladly would I welcome your company Sir Knight,” said the boy with genuine warmth, “but am I a fit companion for such as you?”

The Knight chuckled, “we are but two men together seeking what the world has to show us, what other difference matters?” He smiled broadly, “and in this uneven terrain, you can easily keep apace of my horse, even afoot.”

Kyan did not say what he knew to be true, that even were they upon a broad plain, he could easily keep abreast of, nay outpace, a mounted man. He nodded eagerly and together they set off, sharing their stories as they traveled. The knight was a third son of a great lord and hoped to prove himself upon some valiant quest and earn his father’s regard thereby. Kyan suddenly pitied the youth, knowing that though he himself was a foundling raised by a penniless shepherd, he had never doubted the old man’s affection for him. Said he quietly, “will any valiant quest or even the greatest triumph earn your father’s love when he has been so disinclined to give it thus far?”

The knight sighed heavily, “I know I shall never be the recipient of his love, if he has any to give, but rather hope at least to earn his respect, a thing too, which is seldom bestowed, but that is my only hope, but come now, tell me all your strange tale.” Kyan did, much astonishing his companion. Said the knight with a thoughtful frown, seeming to find the most unbelievable part of the tale the boy’s idea that some of the old tales were no doubt true, “I had never thought about those nearly forgotten stories in such a light! To think they might be true indeed? It is a peculiar world!”

Kyan could not help but laugh, “yet you pursue dragons and ogres and other legendary creatures without a second thought.”

The knight smiled ruefully, “I do indeed, I suppose what one man considers common and normal another may well think odd, if not myth indeed! Well met lad, well met indeed! Tell me more of these tales, if you know aught of them?”

Kyan thought for a moment, remembering the many stories the shepherd had told round the fire down through the years, and said with a nod, “I know a few certainly, though I knew it not until this moment!” He then tried his hand at telling tales, having left the practice to the elder shepherd, but as he was absent there was no other choice. The stories captivated teller and hearer alike and reluctant were they to stop for the night in some hidden fold of the land, but the knight could not go on indefinitely without rest and Kyan was reluctant to leave his newfound companion behind, so they secreted themselves in a quiet dell, and once the fire danced merrily between them, Kyan continued his tales.

As Kyan finally quieted, having no more tales of that particular saga to impart, the knight mused, “I wonder if the tales told among my own folk are also true? They say these haunted wastes used to be a great and mighty kingdom that fell into darkness and eventually into dust.”

Kyan shivered, “I have felt eyes watching me each night and heard whispers and laughter on the wind, mocking and scornful.”

“Such has been whispered among my own kin, though never widely, for we do not fear the darkness or that which lurks behind it, yet these are bold men, seasoned warriors, who were greatly disturbed by such uncanny goings on,” said the knight quietly, “that is one reason I set forth for this place, for where such ghosts or fiends still lurk, certainly there must be the chance of great adventure and therefore renown.”

Kyan shook his head in dismay, “I would fly from this place as fast as could be were I not bidden to continue on.”

“Whither are you bound?” asked the knight, “for there is nothing but old ruins and relics of the past in this grim land.”

“I don’t know,” said the boy, “but thither I must go, neither do I know what fate awaits me there, only that I must go forth to meet it.”

The knight stroked his chin thoughtfully, “do you think your Master might have a use for me? Ever have I ridden forth upon some needful or useful quest, but only for my own glory or gain, not primarily for the benefit of those imperiled, though that was an inevitable consequence. It would be a pleasure to ride forth in the name of some noble and benevolent lord, rather than for my own glory.”

The boy grinned wryly, “if He can find a use for a cursed peasant, the least of all men, He could certainly find something for you to do.” His eyes strayed up the hill where the rising moon was just visible, silhouetting an old ruin in weird shadows. “What is that, do you think?” mused he.

The knight frowned off into the darkness, not having the uncanny vision of his companion, but the rising moon gave ample light to show what had caught the boy’s attention, or at least enough to cause a shudder to run down the knight’s spine. Said he in dread, “an old castle or fortress fallen to ruin, perhaps a relic from that long forgotten kingdom.”

“No,” said the boy quietly, as if a scholar of ancient days, “it is older still. Shall we investigate?”

The knight gaped at him, “you yourself were just talking of the specters that haunt these cursed hills and now you want to lose yourself in a crumbling fortress in the dead of night?”

The boy frowned thoughtfully, “I do not think we have anything to fear in that old ruin, but rather the shades that haunt these hills are uneasy in its shadow. I want to know why.”

“Your quest?” said the knight with a growing smile.

Kyan grinned, “of course! Why else would I propose something so mad, I am no warrior after all?”

“Very well,” said the knight, checking to see that his weapons were in place as he stood, “I did promise to accompany you, lead on then brave sir. I can’t believe I am doing this!”

Kyan grinned his thanks and eagerness as he stood; they left the cheerful fire to hie themselves across the dark moor en route to the towering ruin. As they climbed, scrambling and slipping on scree and loose stones, a vile shadow suddenly loomed out of the darkness as the grim horseman towered over them, mocked he, as the pair huddled amidst the brambles in utter terror, “so you’ve found a friend in your doomed wanderings and even have the temerity to approach a site once held sacred by ancient fools? I think not, flee little mortals ere your foolish quest destroys you utterly.”

The knight frowned, “what is up there that you don’t want us finding?”

“The creature speaks,” sneered the dark horseman, “nothing but the dust of the bones of men, yours can lie among them if that would be your preference!”

“We will ascend,” said Kyan quietly, “even though you bar the way.”

The shadowy horseman shrugged, “have it your way little mortal, do not say I did not warn you. You are a fool to abandon my master’s call and prove it by going where none dare go, even in broad daylight.”

“A liar, through and through,” said the knight coldly.

The villain did not bother hiding his cruel laughter, “certainly, but in this case the truth is so much more amusing than any fabrication I could invent.” He turned his horse and vanished into the darkness.

The pair exchanged a curious look, each shrugged, and then continued their ascent. The moon stood high overhead as they neared the gaping gates of the crumbling keep, illuminating the little tendrils of mist that crept blindly about the ruin and deepening the shadows therein. They exchanged another look, this one full of doubt and fear, they had not felt this much dread even while that terrible horseman loomed over them. “Perhaps this was not such a good idea,” said Kyan grimly, but he did not move, either back or forward.

“Perhaps not,” concurred the knight, “but it was the right thing to do.”

Kyan eyed him strangely, “how can foolishness ever be considered good?”

The knight laughed, “did you not just tell me yourself that what most men consider foolishness, you have deemed the most important thing in the world?”

“True,” said the boy with a thoughtful frown, “so I guess there is but one thing to do.” He took a step towards the ruin and suddenly all was darkness as the mist engulfed them so thickly that even the moon’s brilliance came to naught.

“You were warned,” said a voice, not evil or repulsive, but stern and quiet.

“Yes,” said the boy, “but a warning from such a source can hardly be borne.”

“You have spirit,” came the voice again in ill-contained amusement, “you will need it, if you intend to go through with this.”

“I do,” said the boy, from his very heart.

“And you, sir?” asked the voice.

“I will not be left behind,” said the knight boldly, little knowing what he was agreeing to but knowing it was a thing he wanted more than life itself.

“So be it,” said the voice with all the finality of a closing door, and suddenly they could see and move once more.

They stood in the midst of the ruin, the moon still rode high in the heavens and the mist had withdrawn to the corners of the crumbling keep. They glanced about quickly, but they were alone besides for the indifferent moon. “That was odd,” said Kyan, at last looking upon his companion, his jaw dropping as he fully took in the equally perplexed knight.

The knight frowned at the boy, wondering what had so flabbergasted him, only then fully appreciating the changes wrought in his companion. He had taken to not looking directly at Kyan’s disturbingly deathlike visage, so it took him a moment and an overt act of will to do just that. He wasn’t a ghastly, living corpse any longer, rather the knight could see right through him, and by the boy’s reaction, Bayard assumed he was in a similarly insubstantial state. He smiled wryly, “quit gaping and let’s figure out what is happening.”

Kyan shut his mouth with a click and studied his own misty form, a vast improvement, or so he thought, from the ashen grey waxiness of his flesh of late. He frowned, “we are ghosts?”

“Do not be ridiculous,” sang the familiar voice of the magpie perched on one collapsing wall, “I do not allow souls to wander at will outside of their appointed place and time. You two brazenly walked into this old ruin, and even when given the chance to escape you stubbornly refused, thus you must bear the consequences of your actions.” He did not sound at all displeased, but rather vastly amused; He vanished with a flick of white feathers before they could voice their questions.

They rose from their knees and exchanged a wondering look as the puzzle only became more convoluted. Said Bayard with a grin, “I had not expected this to be the adventure upon which I followed you, my friend.”

“Adventure?” came the voice again, “hah! This is no adventure; this is but the beginning, the preface as it were. You don’t call putting your socks on of a morning an adventure, not that you’re likely to need socks after this…” The voice trailed off into a thoughtful silence as two sets of eyes scanned the ruin for the source, but it took them several minutes, and the creature’s muffled laughter, to actually locate the speaker. They finally found a small lizard, grey as the surrounding stone, clinging to a cleft in the rock. “Not exactly what you expected, eh lad?” said the irrepressible creature to Bayard with a grin, “though nothing from here on out is likely to be anything like you expect. For instance, I’m not exactly what you’d think of when the word ‘dragon’ was mentioned.” They gaped at the creature and it chuckled, “see what I mean! Appearances mean nothing to you now, though it will take your minds a bit to work their way around such a concept.”

Kyan glanced at his misty hand and then returned his gaze to the self-proclaimed dragon, “what are we?”

The lizard rolled his eyes, “we have a very long way to go if I must begin at the very beginning.” Kyan’s eyes narrowed and the reptile laughed, “you are a man, now as you have always been and ever shall be. You’ve acquired a few useful skills perhaps, but you are still of the race of men.”

Bayard queried, “we are dead?”

The lizard’s mirth increased, “dead? Of course not, what nonsense! You have absolutely no use for that antiquated concept whatsoever.” He sobered but said eagerly, “nay lad, you are beyond death.” The pair exchanged a baffled frown and the reptile nodded, “so you knew absolutely nothing of this ere you ventured forth? That explains much.”

“No,” said Kyan, “I only knew I had to come.”

Bayard grinned, “and I felt a great urge to tag along.”

“Well,” said the lizard, “I suppose I had best go easy on the pair of you, seeing as how you entered this service by blind faith alone and know nothing of what you have embroiled yourselves in.” He brightened, “but once you have learned what you must, I’ve no reason to treat you any differently than any of the others.”

“Others?” asked Bayard eagerly, “we are not alone in this…whatever it is.”

“Certainly not,” said the lizard, “far from it, for there are many fighting this war, some are men like yourselves, but we come from every race, time, nation, tribe, and kindred within creation and beyond it.”

Kyan sat down heavily on a nearby stone, “we are to be soldiers? I know nothing of war or fighting!”

“Easy lad,” said the lizard, “you’ll know what you must when you need it, and it is not as if this is a battle like your histories record with one army hacking at another with crudely wrought weapons. This is a war that spans all of space and time and the realms beyond: light versus darkness, good versus evil, and so forth. Our Master has already won the war, but His enemies have not yet surrendered or admitted defeat, nor will they until Time itself draws to a close, thus are we needed to fight them on many and varied fronts, wherever our strengths and talents lie and our Master’s will sends us.”

Kyan eyed Bayard with a smile and said, “it seems you have your wish.”

Bayard laughed, “and you my friend? Or was it ever your desire to herd sheep all your mortal days?”

Kyan grinned, “I did herd sheep all my mortal days.” He eyed the self-proclaimed dragon keenly, “since falling into this disaster, I do not think I have had a mortal day since.”

“Very good lad,” said the lizard in approbation, “I think you begin to understand.” He frowned, “a nasty bit of business that, but as you see, the ending still worked out as our Master intended, or shall I say, rather the beginning, for your adventures are only just begun.”

“What strange quest have we embarked upon?” asked Bayard hopefully, unconsciously studying one of his mist-wrought hands.

“Oh, we have not left quite yet,” said the lizard in amusement, “but we shall rectify that matter shortly. I have waited near a thousand years for you two to show up.” The boys exchanged an incredulous glance and then turned questioning eyes upon their host as the lizard laughed anew, “you weren’t quite what I was expecting either, but ‘His ways are not our ways,’ and who are we to question His provision? I will tell you my tale, at least enough for you to understand the quest that lies before us.”

Eagerly did they seat themselves and turn glowing eyes upon the miniscule grey creature as he began his tale, “I told you I was a dragon, but that is not quite the whole truth. My father is indeed the King of the Dragons, a creature of incredible wisdom and power, its like not to be found anywhere else in all creation, but my mother was a unicorn.” They frowned in confusion at this strange assertion, prompting another laugh from the lizard, but he quickly continued his tale, “a strange pairing no doubt, but not impossible for creatures not doomed to spend their lives bound to one definite shape or guise, as are mortal men. Dragons, unicorns, and a few other of the more interesting creatures with whom you share creation have this ability, our natural forms not withstanding. Thus can I appear before you as a mere lizard, if I wish it. Now where was I, ah yes!

The unicorns have no King, being such benevolent and wise creatures that no major dispute has ever arisen among them, thus my father could not have chosen one of their Princesses as a bride had he wished it nor was it a union of political convenience, though it rankled the dragons grievously to have him choose a unicorn over another dragon, but so he did, for she had captured his heart and there was nothing that would change his mind, even when a dire curse was laid upon the union by a dreadful warlock. They were married and lived many a happy year together until the birth of their only child, but alas, with my birth did the curse come to fruition. She did not survive my birth and it grieved my father sorely, but he could not blame me any more than he could himself, but rather the forces of evil received their proper due and he pledged his only son to the ongoing effort to undermine and destroy all such evil.

I could have refused of course, but I have never wished it to be otherwise. I see little of my father, grieved as he is by the loss of my mother, a fact which is only complicated by the fact that I am both dragon and unicorn, yet also of neither race. I traveled far and wide, learning from any who would teach me, spending time amongst many and various folk, discovering the ways of the world. Eager to take up the fight to which my father had dedicated me, hoping it would give me a place and a purpose at last, I presented myself before these very gates, back when these lands were peopled. At one time this was a great and beautiful castle, filled with those dedicated heart and soul to our Master’s calling. Scribes copied His words to be distributed to all corners of the world, bards were trained in His teachings to spread the tales and songs across all creation, knights were taught to fight the darkness, and it was the center of culture and lore and civilization, at least among men.

I studied here for a time, but the great kingdom in which the castle stood was slowly falling into darkness, begrudging this center of life and light as a canker in its very heart. At last, there arose a King who hated our Master and His Light above all else. They invaded the castle one moonless night, putting all within to the sword, burning the vast library and every paper, scroll, and book they could find before casting down the walls and towers, leaving hardly one stone atop another. I watched it all, wishing with all my heart to stop the desecration, and I certainly had the power to do so, but alas, I knew it was not to be, I could do nothing but sit and watch as the darkness seemed to triumph utterly that night, but for their audacity and wanton evil, the entire Kingdom fell under a curse: those who followed our Master or loved the ways of peace, felt a nearly irresistible urge to flee the night of the attack, and most wisely heeded the warning, but those that tarried or doubted or refused, found themselves facing the same doom as all in that terrible Kingdom.

After the vile King’s triumph, he was in a festive mood and invited great and small alike to his royal palace for a week of feasting and celebration, with none exempted save at the peril of their own lives. So it was, the entire Kingdom, at least those who had not fled in the night, turned out for the King’s gala and at the height of their merriment, the curse fell full upon them. Each and every one of them was reduced to a formless shadow, abhorring all light and life and joy, deathly afraid of the sun’s light and hating the light of star and moon and all those that could freely walk beneath them. They still hiss and mutter and moan in the shadows, emerging at night to taunt unwary travelers and lurking by day amidst the ruins and in the hollows of the land. Doomed to this interminable existence until a new king shall arise, one who shall reclaim these forgotten lands in our Master’s name and rule them again in wisdom and peace.”

The boys were spellbound by the story and the lizard smiled broadly to see their captivation, finished he, “those that fled that fateful night and those abroad at the time of the castle’s destruction: the bards, knights, etc. continued to keep our Master’s name alive among men, and their descendants continue to do so until this very day, but so much have they dwindled in number and influence that most men now think the stories nothing but fireside tales with no bearing upon real life, but that is about to change. For the King shall arise and establish his Kingdom, but first he must go a-courting.”

Kyan gaped and Bayard smiled slightly, “you have waited here all this time, and for us?”

The lizard snorted, “not just for you, though you are vital to my quest, rather I had to wait for the appropriate time.”

Kyan frowned, “what can we do for such a great and powerful creature? Why have you need of us at all? Why linger within the confines of this ruined castle for so long rather than going abroad and doing something, anything of use or import?”

The lizard cocked his head, “doing something merely for the sake of feeling important or busy is utterly ridiculous and contrary to the very will of our Master, lad, if it is His will that you be patient and wait at a given time. And so it was for me, but no longer. As to why I have lingered here so long and of what possible use you can be to me, I am not so utterly powerful as you assume. Yes, my parents are fabulous and remarkable creatures in their own right and I have inherited much of their power and wisdom, but for all of that, we are still wrought of flesh and blood and vulnerable to the evil that yet mars creation, much as the curse laid upon my parents’ marriage shows. I would be a terrible foe to any mortal creature foolish enough to challenge me, but it is no living creature I fear.

Nay, rather it is creatures wrought of shadow and death of which I am wary: willing souls who have sold themselves utterly into evil in exchange for power and what they think is immortality but is rather a living death. I have no power over such fiends.” His smile became grimly eager, “and that is your part in this tale.”

Kyan gaped openly but Bayard laid a hand eagerly on his sword hilt, saying, “then let us begin the story, if we may.”

Kyan shook his head vigorously, “why us? I, at least, am the least of all men!”

The lizard chuckled, “easy lad, you will very soon find yourself quite surprised, I think. As to the why you in particular, that is not for us to know or comprehend, but the important thing is, you have said yes, and that is all our Master requires, trust Him to equip you as is required. This is why that fiend came after you and dealt you so grievous a curse. Our Enemy knew you were called to some peculiar service and would have you destroyed or better yet, corrupted, before you could enter it.”

Bayard nodded thoughtfully, “the grim horseman?”

The lizard shuddered, “so you have encountered at least one of the creatures of which I have spoken, besides your attacker of course?”

“I suppose that awful horseman must be one of your undead minions of evil,” said Kyan, scratching his chin thoughtfully, “but why did he not make an end of me when he had the chance? He certainly tried to corrupt me, and seemed to hope I would one day despair, but never did he strike me down though he had plenty of chances to do so.”

The magpie on the wall chirruped, “you were Marked, lad, as one of My own, as one set apart for My peculiar use. My Enemy thinks himself the true master of this fallen sphere, but it is not so. Though he tried to mark you as his own and intended only your doom, he failed to realize that you might yet choose Me over all else and that I might have plans for you other than death. The fiend made any number of excuses and rationalizations to himself as to why he never destroyed you utterly, but there was only one reason he did not strike you down: I had forbidden it. Now go forth boldly upon the quest I have set you, to which you have readily agreed.” He vanished suddenly and the two men rose from their knees while the lizard left his reverent crouch. They exchanged a wondering glance and then set forth without a word, eager to obey His parting words.

The lizard hesitated on the brink of the ruin and turned back to face his companions, “this will never do! One of you must go forth before me, I have not left this crumbling castle since its destruction a thousand years ago, for it is forbidden that our Enemy’s servants enter its confines, thus have I been spared their predations when their fell master would love nothing more than to see me utterly destroyed, yet I would step forth as unwitting as a child with a wolf at the door!”

Bayard drew his sword and went first with Kyan uneasily bringing up the rear, feeling an utter fool despite his Master’s recent encouragement. The lizard was suddenly a young man in his prime and boldly followed Bayard out into the waning night, a sword in his own hand. Kyan could not keep the eager grin from his face, doubts or no, and hastened after his companions, his own sword instinctively coming into his hand; he smiled at the weapon wryly for a moment and then vanished out the keep’s gaping gate.

 

There were no monsters or murderous fiends waiting in ambush without, only a misty dawn. They all sighed in relief, though they had not known they had been holding their breath in dread, before exchanging a rueful gaze at their own timidity. Said the former lizard, “I suppose I have not properly introduced myself?”

Bayard smiled, “you have told us quite the history, sir, but we have no name to go with your fantastic tale.”

“You may call me Ithril,” said the man, “that is the most easily pronounced of my many names and titles.”

“Shall we call you ‘Sire,’ ‘Highness,’ or ‘Prince,’ as well?” asked Kyan, his eyes growing wide as he suddenly began to comprehend that the creature before him was no mere lizard and that he had some great destiny to be about.

Ithril chuckled warmly, “nay, nay, at least not unless formally necessary. We are each of us servants of our Master, no more and no less. The least of men and the most wondrous of dragons are each equally valuable in His eyes, who are we to treat one another otherwise?”

Bayard nodded, “very well, though it shall certainly take some time to acclimate our poor mortal sensibilities to such a concept.”

Ithril shook his head, an amused smile on his face, “but you have no mortal sensibilities to acclimate, my friend, for you are no longer a mortal creature. You have passed forever beyond death and time, though you have chosen to dwell for a while within the temporal sphere for my sake.”

Kyan smiled slightly, a thoughtful look on his face, “we are still men, yet beyond death and time? Perhaps as our race was always intended to be?”

Ithril shook his head, “none but our Master can know what your race was intended to be, had they not fallen from our Master’s grace in the morning of the world, but rather this is the guise in which you will serve Him in your current role.” He laughed, “but come my friends, you cannot go jaunting about the countryside like vagrant patches of mist and hope to be effective in your duties.” The pair exchanged a thoughtful smile and suddenly stood as solid and whole as their companion in the burgeoning light of day. Ithril nodded in satisfaction and then frowned, “now we must find ourselves proper mounts.”

It was Bayard’s turn to smile, “I have a horse that will well suit you, just down the hillside if he has not wandered in the night.”

“Excellent,” said Ithril as he began the descent.

Kyan frowned at Bayard, “what about us?” Bayard’s only answer was an infuriating grin, but suddenly Kyan understood exactly why he could smile thus. They hastened after Ithril, scanning the retreating mist for signs of hidden foes, but nothing worse than a startled rabbit disturbed their return to their camp of the previous night. They found the horse still hobbled where they had left him; he whickered eagerly upon sighting his master and snorted in confusion as he caught the odd scent of Ithril, having absolutely no idea what to make of the peculiar smelling man.

As Ithril patiently worked with the horse, who was not lacking in mortal sensibilities, which were quite overwrought at the moment, no matter what had come of his former master, the boys were busy procuring their own mounts. Said Kyan with a grin, “I’ve never been aback a horse in my life.”

Bayard laughed, “and I’m sure you’ve never held a sword either, but it seems you have already mastered that minor skill.”

“Indeed,” said the boy, “too bad there is unlikely to be a use for my immense skill with sheep.”

“Let us hope not,” said Bayard with a grimace of distaste, “but in this bizarre tale, anything and everything is possible! Now let us see if we can get ourselves properly horsed.” He raised a glowing hand as the thinning mist before him began to glow likewise, gathering itself into the form he wished it to take. A horse appeared suddenly, tossing his head and stamping his feet in impatience to be off, even as Kyan smiled in wonder as his own outstretched hand began to glow.

A few minutes later Ithril rode up, having reached an understanding with his own beast, and said with a smile as he looked upon his newly mounted companions, “well met indeed, my friends. Now let us see what other adventures await us.” He turned his horse and cantered down the hillside, his companions having no choice but to follow after, though they thought the descent a little too steep for such a reckless pace. Bayard grinned wryly to himself, thinking he sounded far too much like his overcautious grandmother but he also knew that the Prince’s safety was his sole concern for the foreseeable future. With this grim thought, he urged his mist-wrought horse to a faster pace lest he be left far behind his companions.

They found a game trail wending its way down the slope but were forced to slow as it paralleled a steep gully with weedy trees and thorny shrubs marching up the precipitous slopes on either side. As their pace became far more sensible and sane, Ithril turned his attention from the thrill of their wild ride to his companions, as Bayard asked, “what then is our mission in the wide world?”

Ithril said with some combination of hope and dread, “did I not say I was going a-courting?”

Kyan nodded, “you did mention it, but I fear it was easily overlooked in all the other strangenesses of the tale.”

“I forget,” said Ithril with a grin, “that I have had a thousand years with little else to think upon whereas you have hardly had twenty years of life, if that, so of course it would be of little import to you, at least at first mention, but now it is of the utmost concern.”

“Certainly,” said Bayard, “but upon which esteemed lady have you set your heart?”

Ithril shook his head ruefully, “that I know not. I hope it will be a marriage of mutual affection as well as one of more practical and political concerns; I might perhaps search the whole world over to find her, but find her we must, for I cannot begin to rebuild this Kingdom without a proper Queen at my side. We shall go first to the ‘greater’ kindreds: the dragons, elves, and unicorns, and if none is found suitable, then we shall look to the kingdoms of men, first amongst the nobility but I will search the most humble shepherd’s cot if I must before I wed the wrong lady.”

“That might take centuries!” said Kyan in surprise and concern. Ithril eyed him blandly, but a slight smile ruined the effect, as the boy blanched in embarrassment and laughed at his own oversight, “but then what is that to us?”

“Exactly,” said Ithril with a broad smile, “it will take as long as it must, but we shall find our Queen eventually, and none of us need concern ourselves with the passing years, for old age is no threat to us. It is indeed a strange and wonderful world you have entered, my friends, but I forget that it has been less than half a day since you did so! But fear not, you shall soon learn to think as you ought.”

Bayard said with a thoughtful frown, “you said we can tackle foes against which your sword is useless, but what of mortal men or even potential enemies we might encounter amongst these ‘greater’ kindreds? Are we of any use against such villains?”

“All such foes will fall to me to deal with,” said Ithril thoughtfully, “though you can certainly help watch for such villains and warn me of any impending attack or even block such an attack should it come, but you cannot deal out even the most minor of injuries to any creature of flesh and blood.”

Kyan grinned, “we are rather limited in our usefulness then.”

Ithril said soberly, “nay friend, you can protect me from things against which I would otherwise be helpless. This restriction is placed upon you because you are no longer native to this world, as creatures from beyond the realm of time, you would otherwise prove too dangerous to those still trapped within its confines, thus are you rendered harmless towards mortal flesh, yet still able to vanquish those fiends who have themselves become unnatural corruptions and abominations within the created order.”

Bayard’s brow rose, “I had not thought of it that way! I had little thought of any reality save that which is before us, yet of a certainty, we are no longer residents of this mortal sphere, though we may linger here a long while upon our Master’s business.” He grinned impishly at the Prince, “how does it feel to be in the presence of so intimidating a creature?”

Ithril laughed outright, “you are about as terrifying as a baby unicorn, for you know as little of your new proclivities as the newborn and are by nature now just as genial. Whereas I am well aware of my powers and the uses thereof and am not bound irrevocably to another’s will, though by choice I have certainly bound myself thus yet by choice also can I turn away and do as it pleases me.” He gave them such a grim and ferocious look that Kyan unwittingly pulled his horse up short and fell a pace behind in his surprise, which caused both Bayard and Ithril to break forth into a very unregal bout of merriment, in which Kyan soon joined. Wiping away a tear, Ithril smiled broadly, “though in very truth, my friends, I am as harmless to you as you are to me.” His smile grew grim and eager, “though we are hardly so to our enemies, especially with our combined powers.”

 

They continued to descend for several days, stopping occasionally to rest the real horse and his rider, though Ithril needed far less rest than a mortal man, but his companions didn’t need rest at all, though they were happy enough to sit around the fire and hear the many tales the Prince could tell of distant places and times, of folk strange and wonderful, some of which had vanished utterly from the world. And glad was he to again have merry companions with whom to share his journey. They felt the eyes in the darkness, but only a furtive glance here and there with nary a laugh to be heard, for the shadowy creatures dared not approach their fire for fear of both the Prince and his uncanny companions. They saw no sign of any other folk, either friend or foe, only the wind and the wild things kept them company.

“Where are we going?” asked Kyan as they sat before the fire one night.

“We shall first visit the Elves,” said Ithril quietly, looking off into the darkness, “their domain is the easiest reached and by it we can more quickly access the realms wherein dragons and unicorns dwell.”

“You sound uneasy,” said Bayard.

“Yes,” said Ithril, “I would not pay them this visit were it not necessary lest they feel themselves grievously insulted. Once they were a merry folk and dwelt happily within our Master’s keeping, yet over the years their hearts have grown cold and proud, and all but a few have rejected the Light they once knew. Their forests used to glow like a spring wood in the sunshine year round, but now they are as cold, dead, and grey as a winter thicket upon a cloudy twilight. I have little hope of finding a bride therein.”

“What are you looking for in a Queen?” asked Kyan, hoping to change the subject.

Ithril smiled slightly in thanks, saying, “above all, she must be a woman humble and pure of heart, dedicated utterly to our Master. Besides that, I would hope she is possessed of wisdom, gentleness, and grace.” His smile became roguish, “I would not be displeased to find that she is pleasant to look upon either.”

“Of course,” said Bayard, far too blandly, sending them all into a fit of laughter, a happy relief after their contemplations upon the sad fate of the elves of that world.

 

As they rode along the next day, Bayard asked, “how does one go about finding the elves? I do not think one can simply ride to their country as you can the kingdoms of men.”

Ithril nodded, “you are starting to think like an immortal my friend, excellent! No, one must know when, where, and how to look for the various entrances to their kingdom, though any greenwood in the wide world might boast such a door, one must know exactly how to enter it for it to be of any use whatsoever. Theirs is a kingdom technically within the confines of the mortal world, but yet outside the influence of time and space, at least as mortal men are used to such concepts, thus can we also gain entrance to other realms from their own.”

He glanced knowingly at his friends as sudden awareness dawned in both sets of eyes, Kyan said in wonder, “we are completely outside such constraints ourselves and can be any where or when, have we need of it.”

Ithril nodded, “correct my friend, though I fear my company shall constrain you to a more mortal pace, for though I can move quickly from place to place and know a few shortcuts, I cannot yet flout the rules of this reality so easily as you.” Even so, they soon came to a forested vale in which Ithril hoped to find a door into the Elven lands. As Ithril scanned the glade before them, Kyan sat frowning at an old oak leaning precariously on its neighbors, a third of its roots pulled haphazardly out of the soil. Bayard followed his gaze and he too began to frown at the odd tree.

Ithril shook his head in dismay and then turned to say something to his companions, frowned at their own frowns and then looked at that which had garnered such scrutiny. He grinned widely, “well done my friends! You have found it. Come, let us put this unpleasant errand behind us as quickly as possible.”

The boys exchanged a shrug and followed their irrepressible leader towards the slowly toppling tree. The tree looked natural enough to a casual observer, but their strange eyes could look beyond the superficial to what truly lay beneath the surface. There was a door in the space between the two trees, invisible and intangible to mortal creatures, but locked and closed to those who knew where and how to look. A human child could walk through the gap in the trees and come out the other side a thousand times and be none the wiser, but having seen the door, the Prince and his companions must either pass through it or go around.

Ithril sat his horse before the door and spoke in various and odd tongues, but the ears of his companions heard quite plainly commands such as ‘open’ and ‘swing wide,’ but nothing seemed to avail him. He sighed heavily and turned back to his friends, “perhaps when the moon comes out or in the light of the stars we shall have an easier time of it?”

Kyan laughed, “it seems a rather inconvenient way to get into your kingdom, but I suppose it does wonders to keep out uninvited guests.”

“That it does,” said a new voice, cold and mirthless as an old tomb.

A grim party of elves surrounded them, bows at the ready, but no one in the imperiled company seemed the least concerned. Said Ithril quietly, “know you the secret of this door, sir?”

“Who is asking?” hissed their captain, caution and fear tingeing his voice at the stranger’s boldness. Ithril steadily met the elf’s gaze but said nothing. The elf captain blanched, motioned for his men to drop their weapons, and bowed stiffly, “please forgive my impoliteness, Sire, for I did not know you at the first.”

“Of course,” said Ithril quietly, “finding strangers upon your doorstep cannot be a pleasant experience, but I must speak with your King.”

“Certainly,” said the elf, bowing again, nearly trembling in terror at the legendary creature before him, guised as nothing but a common man. Kyan and Bayard said nothing, but they did exchange a significant look at the elf’s apparent disquiet upon guessing the identity of their companion. Was there more to the story that they had not yet heard? But now was not the time for answers, for the elves soon had the door open and a few hastened through to make sure the way was clear, before the rest drew aside and bowed respectfully as the captain motioned for Ithril to enter.

Bayard suddenly dug in his heels, causing his horse to spring forward and cut off the Prince, who shook his head ruefully at his own incaution and prompting a squawk of alarm and dismay from the elven captain, “what is this?! Will a mortal man dare to set foot upon our sacred soil and desecrate our entire realm? Do you not know it is death for such a one to enter unbidden? Can such rudeness to so great a personage be tolerated?”

“Easy captain,” said Ithril quietly, “my companion must enter first to make sure the way is safe, a fact which I had forgotten in my haste. As to your other concerns, you will soon discover them to be moot. But what of my horse? He is of mortal stock, another fact I had overlooked until now.”

The captain did not seem at all pleased, but out of respect for his guest, grated, “the beast will find himself blessed by his sojourn amongst us rather than cursed, though your companions risk the latter.”

“How so?” asked Ithril, with a quizzical frown.

The captain shrugged, “no mortal man can enter our bounds without the King’s leave else he will find himself unmade.”

Ithril nodded that Bayard should precede him and then turned to watch the captain’s reaction. The elf first wore an offended frown as the impertinent man entered the door, but it was soon replaced by a malicious smile in anticipation of what was to come, but then a look of utmost surprise and annoyance graced his countenance as the man failed to dissolve into nothingness but merely grew misty with a disturbing inner radiance suffusing his being. Ithril hid his own amused smile and urged his horse through the door when Bayard nodded that it was safe to do so; Kyan followed close behind him with the remaining elves bringing up the rear.

The elf captain gaped at the Prince’s two companions, but it was not his place to question who or what sort of eldritch creatures such an august personage chose to associate with, at least as long as they were not mortal men, and that was enough to satisfy the captain, at least for the moment. They formed up with elves ahead and behind and all-around with Bayard riding ahead of the Prince and Kyan directly behind him. The elves could move as briskly through their own woods afoot as their guests could ride at a trot, and soon enough they reached the leafy glade wherein the Elven King sat upon his throne, a wonder wrought of ancient grape vines and a hundred different flowering vines, for most of which Kyan had no name, for they grew in no mortal garden.

Ithril drew rein on the edge of the clearing and dismounted, as did his two companions. The captain rushed to the King with his strange news and anxiously awaited the King’s command. The King heard him patiently and only a slightly raised eyebrow betrayed his surprise, but he soon sent the captain running back to the waiting Prince with instructions that the boy should approach the throne. Ithril stepped forward, bold as any boy in his own mother’s kitchen and nodded ever so slightly to the elven king, who returned the gesture in kind, though he eyed the two silent forms that ghosted behind Ithril with curiosity, annoyance, and surprise.

Said the King, ignoring the boy’s odd companions and focusing on the Prince instead, “to what do we owe this auspicious visit, Sire?”

Ithril said simply, “I am making a tour of the world’s various Kingdoms, Highness, in search of a suitable bride.”

“Ah!” said the King, brightening significantly, “it would truly be an honor for one of my royal daughters to be so chosen.”

“Certainly,” said the Prince, “and happy would I be to find my bride among them.”

“Of course,” said the King, his tone becoming cautious, “if you aspire to such a union, there are certain conditions that must be met.” Ithril merely arched an eyebrow as the King continued, “there are rumors, unsubstantiated of course, that you still cling to certain antiquated customs and I could not in good conscious allow one of my dear children to ally herself with such a backwards thinking individual, no matter his pedigree or station. But I am certain they are merely rumors, but if true, they can certainly be repudiated for such a prize. You must also abide by the advice of a certain individual that I will personally appoint to your advisory council, wherever you establish your demesne. Also, the lands and peoples over which you have influence will be ceded to me upon any breach of the above assertions or upon your own demise.”

Ithril bowed deeply, “I fear we are at an impasse, Sire, for I cannot in good faith agree to any of that which you have spoken.”

“A pity,” said the King, “for such a son-in-law could be quite agreeable to me. Alas that it cannot be!”

Kyan suddenly leapt forward as a crossbow bolt buried itself in his chest rather than hitting Ithril. The boy gaped in astonishment and pain even as he dissolved suddenly into mist and moonshine; Bayard drew his sword and charged in the direction from which the attack had come, leaving the Prince momentarily alone with the startled King, who seemed more surprised that the attack had failed rather than that his guest had nearly been killed. Realizing his foolishness in abandoning the Prince thus, Bayard’s hand suddenly began to glow and Kyan appeared at his side. With a curt nod and a roguish smile, Kyan dashed back to Ithril even as the elven soldiers moved in to cut him off. Without a word, Kyan placed a glowing hand on Ithril’s shoulder and they both vanished in a flash of light even as another crossbow bolt flew through the place where they had been standing.

Bayard found himself alone with the hostile elves and their frantically raving King. He gave up his pursuit of the hidden attacker and rather thought to fetch the Prince’s horse from the far side of the glade, but a horde of angry elven warriors stood between him and the beast. With a wry smile, he charged the throng and ghosted through them as if he were no more substantial than the mist of which he was wrought, his smile deepened as he knew it to be true and easily waded through the company as they futilely flailed about with their weapons. He took up the horse’s reins and vanished as suddenly as Kyan, leaving the elf king alone to fret and fume over his keen disappointment and to dread what sort of discipline his masters would mete out should they hear of this minor fiasco.

 

The horse tossed his head in fear as they suddenly appeared on a twilit hillside as the first stars bejeweled the heavens, but otherwise the evening’s peace lay undisturbed about them. A sod hut lay off to the right in the darkling mist, smoke curling from its chimney. Bayard saw the beast settled for the night and then knocked upon the door, which was immediately answered by Kyan, who grinned like a maniac, the flickering light from the hearth casting his face into weird and ever shifting shadows. He beckoned for his friend to come in and quickly introduced him to the ancient shepherd busy getting a small repast together for his visitors.

Bayard grinned widely, “so this then is home?”

“Yes,” said Kyan with a heartfelt smile, “humble as it is.”

Bayard turned questioning eyes upon Ithril, who seemed quite pleased with the arrangement, though it was hardly fit to house even his horse, said the Prince, “we have had quite the warm welcome, our gracious shepherd is far more hospitable than was our previous host.” The man blushed red, but kept his eyes focused on his work, pretending not to have heard.

As Bayard settled himself, the shepherd finally looked up and caught Kyan’s eye, “I am sorry lad, but I fear some of you will have to bed down in the loft of the sheep shed, for your old pallet is occupied. One of the neighbor’s girls has come down with the pox, and as I’ve had it, I said I’d take her in until things change for the better or worse rather than risk infecting their other young ones.”

“How ill is she?” asked Kyan in concern.

“Bad enough,” said the man sadly, “the doctor won’t yet say whether she has a chance or not.”

“Might I see her?” asked Kyan.

The old man frowned, “whyever for? She needs all the rest she can manage and it is not as if you can do aught to help her.”

“In that I think you are wrong, sir,” said the boy, a hopeful and eager light burning in his eyes.

“Very well,” said the ancient shepherd, “I suppose it can do no harm, especially as you’ve somehow managed to avert your own doom, maybe you can truly help the poor lass.”

They vanished behind a ragged curtain at the back of the hut and a sudden flash of light burst forth, followed by the man’s astonished cries, and the girl’s wide yawns. Ithril exchanged an amused and happy smile with Bayard as the trio emerged, the girl as healthy as she had ever been. She gaped upon seeing strangers and vanished back behind the curtain, refusing to come out until the shepherd had provided her with a basin of water and something to wear besides her sweat soaked nightdress. She emerged some minutes later, scrubbed and resplendent in worn homespun, but ready to engage the strangers in a night of merriment and conversation. The shepherd gaped anew but Bayard and Kyan exchanged a knowing look behind his back.

 

As the night drew on, the shepherd caught his former ward’s eye and they silently withdrew from the hut for a private word, leaving Ithril and Bayard to entertain the young lady. Said the old man, once they were alone, “so what has come of your adventures lad?”

Kyan smiled widely, “they have barely begun, sir.”

“That’s what I thought,” said the shepherd, he sadly met the boy’s eyes, “so you have not come home to stay?”

“No,” said the boy, “I have found my purpose and it is not to settle down and herd sheep.”

The old man could not help but smile at this, “Jenna will be sorely disappointed.”

Kyan gaped, “Jenna?! I thought she could not bear the thought of me without becoming nauseous?”

The ancient shepherd laughed heartily and clapped the boy on the back, “it seems you have much to learn of women, my boy. She’s had her eye on you since you were both wee things.”

An impish light entered Kyan’s eyes, “but I think she may be tempted to look elsewhere after this night.”

It was the man’s turn to gape, “you cannot think her parents would let her run off with a man they hardly know? Your companion may be a fine lad in his own right, but even we hill folk have our ideas of propriety!”

Kyan’s smile widened, “be assured that there is not a man of greater character or virtue in the wide world, sir. But it is only a fleeting guess on my part, I know of no partiality on either of their parts, but are not all young girls susceptible to a handsome face, especially a man who is well spoken and carries a sword?”

“Every girl’s dream,” said the shepherd wryly, “perhaps you know more of women than I thought. That scamp will bear watching then.”

“Scamp indeed!” said a new voice, as Ithril stepped fully into the moonlight that the shepherd might know him. The old man was mortified, vigorously working his crumpled hat in his hands in his dismay, but Ithril was both pleased and amused rather than insulted, said he, “I am glad to see you folk are so protective of your maids and likewise wary of strangers in these perilous times, but I tell you sir, you have nothing to fear from me, rather when you hear rumors that a King has arisen once more, you may heartily welcome them with joy as the very truth and rejoice in knowing you have hosted him in your own house and that your son serves him faithfully as companion and guard.”

This was too much for the old man’s sensibilities and he was very soon lying senseless on the turf. Kyan gently touched the fainted man’s shoulder and a flash of light passed between them, rousing and reviving the astonished man. Continued Ithril once the man had gained his feet, “I will send for you one day, for a faithful and honest heart is rare indeed in these dark days, but only if that is your wish?”

The man gaped openly, “but sir! I am naught but a feeble old man, unlearned in anything but the art of sheep raising.”

Ithril smiled, “did I ask for an accounting of your skills and abilities, Master Shepherd? All I need know is if you are willing or not?”

The man stared at his feet for a long moment and then met the peculiar young man’s gaze, “of a certainty, Sire, when you call, I shall come if I am able.”

“As to that,” said Ithril eagerly, “we shall soon rectify that minor inconvenience. You can also do me a great service in the interim, warding this district, and particularly a certain maiden, from fiends such as that which assaulted your lad here. Are you still willing?”

The old man gaped, but quickly went to one shaky knee before this enigma before him, speaking as some apparition out of the old tales. “Very well then,” said Ithril, “you shall be knighted into my service this very night.” He eyed Kyan significantly, the boy was for a moment taken aback, but soon hastened forward and stood beside his master, anxiously awaiting further instruction. Ithril turned again to the kneeling man, “you do know that though I am a long prophesized King, I am but a servant of the Greatest King of All? And any true servant of mine must also be His?” The old man nodded, a shudder of terror and joy running down his spine. “Very well,” said Ithril, nodding at Kyan.

The boy for a moment looked rather nervous, but then an eager light flared in his eyes and suffused his person. The ancient shepherd gasped, as the boy seemed alight from within, but did not flinch back as Kyan laid a firm hand upon his shoulder. Suddenly the light leapt from one to the other, until the scene was too bright to look upon. As the light subsided, each remained in their previous positions, the man still on his knees, but utterly changed. He exchanged a wondering smile with the boy and then turned a fervent gaze upon his new master, saying as he rose, “I stand ready to do your bidding, Sire.” He bowed deeply and the Prince smiled broadly in reply.

When the three returned to the sod hut, it would appear to any casual observer that nothing at all interesting had passed between them that night though one life had been utterly changed forever. Bayard stood eagerly as they entered, but Jenna was long asleep in what had once been her sickbed. Said the Prince quietly, “I will retire for a few hours but we must away ere the sun’s rising.” He left his companions to speak quietly of all that had passed since the odd tale was begun. Jenna was still abed when Ithril awoke and chivied his minions into their saddles, saying in parting to the now ageless shepherd, “ward well the girl, I do not know what the future holds for her, but perhaps it shall be wonderful indeed. Fare you well, my friend!” They turned their horses and rode off into the misty gloom before the sun’s rising, leaving the former shepherd to abide by his King’s parting command with an irrepressible hope and ineffable joy welling in his heart.

 

“Would you marry a shepherd girl?” asked Kyan as they rode along, his boldness amusing Ithril no end, for any other creature that was even remotely familiar with such a legendary personage would shudder even to breath in his presence, but then this lad was quite unfamiliar with the legends and had first known him as nothing more dreadful than a talking lizard. It was rather refreshing.

Said the Prince after a thoughtful silence, “if that is my Master’s will, certainly I would, but none can know what her future will hold, save the Master Himself.”

Kyan sighed in relief, “far better you than me!”

Ithril chuckled, “I am happy to know you are not jealous that I might perhaps steal your sweetheart.”

“Sweetheart indeed!” laughed Kyan, “I have ever known her as ‘that annoying girl who lives over yonder.’”

Bayard laughed, “that would be an unfortunate title should the poor girl one day be Queen hereabouts!”

Ithril nodded gravely, “and I would have to deal severely with the one who gave it to her.”

Kyan bowed his head, “I am at your mercy, Sire.”

Ithril barked a laugh, “you are the scamp, sir, not me!”

“Things shall be as they must,” said the boy with an impish grin, before humor wracked the entire party and destroyed all chance at conversation for a very long time thereafter.

Whatever remained of their fading mirth vanished utterly when Ithril sharply drew rein, sitting his saddle as if he meant to spring from it at any moment, his eyes taking in every detail, and had he ears capable of it in that form, they too would be pricked and on the alert. His companions too sensed something, though they yet had no name for the sensation as of yet, so new to this service and strange world in which they now dwelt. Ithril said quietly to his curious friends, “something dreadful comes.”

“That bad?” said Bayard just as quietly.

Ithril could not help but smile wryly, “I did not say it was either good or bad, only dreadful, something or someone of immense power and age.” His smile deepened, “there are many that would think just that of me.”

At last, whatever it was, stepped out of the concealing mists, and had their horses been anything but two mist wrought phantoms and a mortal beast that had had the benefit of dwelling for a moment amongst the elves, they would have panicked and fled at the merest hint of such a creature, but as that was not the case, they stood there as if rooted to the earth, allowing their riders ample chance to study the approaching presence with much awe and eagerness, for here was a unicorn in all his unveiled glory. He paused, studying them with as much intensity and keenness as they him. He bowed his head slightly and said, “greetings Prince.”

Ithril bowed his head likewise, “good morning, Elder. How might we be of service?”

“Nay, nay,” said the wondrous creature, “it is rather I that am to be of service to you, though perhaps my message will not be that which you would wish to hear; at least it will spare you some trouble upon a futile quest.” Ithril nodded and the unicorn continued, “I bring word from both your father and your mother’s kin, that there are none amongst either kindred that wish to enter into such a union as you currently pursue.”

“My mother’s fate?” said the boy sadly.

“Perhaps in part,” said the venerable creature quietly, “but rather I think there are few amongst us who wish to leave our native realms to dwell amongst men, even be it as a Queen.”

“Not surprising,” said the Prince, “I thank you for your timely message.”

“What is time to us?” snorted the amused unicorn.

“True,” said Ithril with a wry grin, “I have not troubled the world for near a millennium and still things have little changed, save the names and borders of the Kingdoms of men. Would you convey my greetings to my father and mother’s kin when next you meet?”

“Certainly,” said the awesome quadruped, “and may the Master bless your search and future reign!” He bowed his head once more, turned as if to go, and was suddenly gone, even from their keen perception.

Said Ithril, turning to his companions, who snapped their jaws shut sheepishly as his gaze fell upon them, “was it not as I said?”

“And far more,” said Kyan in wonder, “though we so little apply a positive implication to terms such as dreadful and awful.”

“Certainly a shortcoming amongst mortal men in these latter days,” said Ithril with an amused smile, “and perhaps the first order of business when I establish my reign.”

“Grammar reform?!” said Bayard in dismay, “and here I thought we were off on an interesting adventure.”

“We’ll have the adventure first and settle down to politics later,” said Ithril with a chuckle, “if ever. At least I need not waste our time or effort touring the lands of my kin.” He watched his companions carefully and smiled at their disappointed reaction, “easy lads, you’ll have all of time and beyond to see such wonders, but for now duty calls.”

“Where next shall we go, Sir?” asked Kyan hopefully, eager to see what the civilized portions of the mortal sphere looked like. He could not help but smile at the irony of having visited the fabled Kingdom of the Elves but never having glimpsed even the humblest city of men.

“As we have visited your home,” said Ithril, eyeing Bayard questioningly, “perhaps we should also see that of our remaining companion?”

Bayard shook his head, “nay Sir, my father is in nowise so welcoming as Kyan’s.”

“No doubt,” said Ithril with a grim smile, “but I promised to search every shepherd’s cot if I must, but we shall start with the rulers of men, of which your father is counted, is he not?”

“Certainly,” said the boy, “just as long as you know not to expect much of a welcome.”

Ithril nodded, “perhaps our dear shepherd will prove the merriest host we shall meet amongst mortal men, I hope not or this shall be an interminable search indeed. Lead on then, Sir Knight.”

Bayard frowned slightly at this, not knowing exactly where they were or how to get home from that particular place, especially as the morning mists still draped the hills in a moist, wooly blanket. But then a sudden thought occurred to him, for if the unicorn, a mortal creature for all his immense age and wisdom, could manage such a feat, why couldn’t he? Turning his horse and catching the eyes of his companions, he nodded, and suddenly the whole world shifted about them. They rode out of the woods on the verge of a great market town over which an ancient fortress hulked on a great hill like some colorless buzzard.

Kyan rode up beside him and smiled, “how did you know we could do something like that?!”

Ithril laughed, “he didn’t, at least not until I asked him to do it.”

Kyan smiled merrily at his friends and then turned his gaze back to the bustling town, “so this is civilization.”

Ithril shook his head in amusement, “I see you are far more overawed by a mere market town than by either the Kingdom of the Elves or seeing a unicorn in all his glorious splendor.”

Kyan’s grin was fit to split his face in two, “or an undead knight or talking lizards or a living corpse or haunted ruins…”

Bayard could not contain himself, “I can certainly see how a modest city of men must seem astounding by comparison!”

“For a man who has seen many strange things in the wide world,” said Ithril, his grin most impish, “you’ve seen nothing of the world at all.”

“Quite true,” said Kyan merrily, “that is what you get for trying to make a Knight out of a hill shepherd.”

“But we have made a proper Knight of you,” said Ithril with a broad smile, “else you would not be accompanying such a grand company upon so vital a quest.”

“Truly?!” said the boy, both pleased and overwhelmed at the prospect.

“Certainly,” said Ithril, “else these great men upon whom we shall soon have the temerity to call would never deign to give us an audience. A Prince must certainly have a proper escort.”

Kyan’s eyes were wide enough to fall from his head as Bayard shook his head and laughed, “a hill shepherd through and through, but come, we had best be on our way if we want to make it to the fortress ere the gates are shut for the night. They won’t open them after dark, not even were the King to call.”

“Not that it would keep you reprobates out,” said Ithril, urging his horse forward, “but I would rather not spend the night out of doors.”

Bayard cocked his head, “but did you not spend a thousand years as a lizard in that old ruin?”

Ithril chuckled, “true, but I doubt your father would see fit to give one of your sisters in marriage to a lizard.”

“It depends,” said Bayard with a slight smile, “on how rich and powerful said lizard is.”

“I see,” said Ithril with a frown, “troubling thought indeed.”

They rode on silently, Kyan gaping around him like the yokel he was, Knight or not. But as they quit the town and ascended the hill, on which sat the old fortress like a wart on a nose, every face grew sober and grim. Bayard had forgotten the ambiance of his ancestral home and glad was he to have abandoned it for greater things, far greater than he could even begin to imagine. They stopped outside the outer gates, with many a grim soldier eyeing them stonily, hands on their weapons, but suddenly someone recognized his lordship’s third son and bellowed orders, letting the small company pass.

Only then did Kyan actually look at the party itself, for they were all clad as both men of action and of no little substance. Bayard smiled at his friend’s appraisal, “we’ll need to be both rich and skilled in the warrior arts, or at least appear as such, if we are even to be allowed an audience with my father.”

Ithril nodded, “as we must with most of these great lords.”

As they rode into the courtyard and dismounted, Bayard asked quietly, “and who will you say that you are, to these men of power and renown?”

“I am simply a Prince out of the north, intent on finding a bride worthy of one day becoming Queen,” said he quietly, “and I am far from lacking in power or wealth. Though my Kingdom currently lies in ruins, but we shall not mention that, at least for the moment.”

Bayard shook his head, “my father is shrewd enough to ferret it out if he must; he is not one to be content with vagaries.”

Ithril’s smile became dangerous, “then perhaps he is a worthy foe.”

Further conversation was impossible as the Steward came running up, immediately confronting Bayard, ignoring his companions, “have you accomplished something of renown, Sir? Your father will be far from pleased if you have not.”

Bayard fended the man off and directed his attention to Ithril, who nodded slightly and said, “I fear you are quite mistaken sir, for this visit is of my doing. I have taken your lord’s son into my service and he merely accompanies me upon this visit of state.”

“I see,” said the Steward, though obviously he did not, “and who may I say is requesting an audience with our esteemed lord?”

“A Prince out of the North,” said the boy with a regal bearing that defied his boyish appearance.

“Very well,” said the Steward, half in awe and half in offense, “I shall inform his lordship, but he is a stickler for details and if you will not even give your name, I cannot say that he will be bothered with seeing you.”

“Things will be as they must,” said Ithril indifferently. As the Steward flounced off, he said conspiratorially to his companions, “besides, we are not exactly here to see the lord himself, merely the ladies of his keep.”

Bayard cocked his head, a half smile on his face, “so even if you are not allowed to go skulking about, that is no impediment to us?”

“Of course,” said Ithril with a laugh, “a Prince can’t just go skulking off whenever the mood strikes him, that’s what he has minions for.”

“How are we to find you a bride?!” said Kyan in surprise, “I thought we only had to protect you from things that go bump in the night.”

“Careful lad,” said Ithril in mock severity, “or next I’ll have you acting as my secretary or blacking my boots.” More seriously, he continued, “you need only watch for a lady of upstanding character, that is all, and even a hill shepherd can handle that.”

“Alas that you don’t need my help in buying a sheep,” said Kyan with a grin, “but I suppose I can adapt.”

Just then the Steward hastened back, saying in some surprise, “his lordship will dine with you this evening. Please follow me and I will see that you are settled, Sire.” The last was almost a question, but they handed over their horses to the waiting grooms and followed the officious little man into the keep.

 

They dined privately with his Lordship that night, he sat at the head of the table, studiously attending to his food and saying little to his guests, but Kyan felt those keen eyes upon each of them, studying, weighing, guessing their true identity and errand. At last, when the last of the plates was swept away by the servants, his Lordship leant back in his chair and took a long draw from his pipe, eyeing his guests in grim amusement, said he, “so you have come forth to reclaim the haunted wastes and want one of my daughters to languish there as Queen of a nonexistent realm? You are bold, but not wise.”

“Indeed,” said Ithril, bland as tepid water, “you have deduced much Sir, but perhaps not all.”

“I must deduce everything, boy!” said his Lordship with rising ire, “for you will not even deign to tell me your name!”

“And that is as it must be,” said the Prince quietly, “but one day it will be known in every hovel and castle between the eastern and western seas.”

A mocking laugh echoed in the dark corners of the stuffy room, said his Lordship with a scoff, “bold indeed! But tell me how it is you plan to people your Kingdom, Highness?” The last was said with such a slur as to make it an epitaph worthy of the lowest stableman in a foul mood indeed.

Ithril could not help but smile wryly, “that will be left to Providence, Sir.”

“I see,” said his Lordship grimly, then eyeing his son, his first acknowledgement that the boy was anything more than another nameless man at arms, “and what sort of desperation drove you to ally yourself with this Prince of Paupers?”

Bayard shrugged, “a more worthy master I could never find, Sir, did I search the whole world over. I am sorry if you do not see the honor of my current position, but it suits me very well indeed.”

“You’re a servant through and through then,” smiled his Lordship maliciously, “and as I always said, and will ever say, a disgrace indeed! I bid you good night gentlemen, and please have the decency to leave on the morrow as soon as the gates are open.” He then withdrew, leaving the servants to see to the needs of his guests.

Once the Prince was ensconced in a rather stuffy little room for the night, he felt at ease to speak freely with his minions, said he, glancing ruefully about at the least of all guestrooms, “the housekeeper probably has a better room.”

Bayard snorted a laugh, “certainly, Sir, only the worst of my father’s ill-favored guests are given these particular quarters. What of our mission?”

“It remains unchanged, even though your father is indifferent to my proposal,” said Ithril eagerly, “off with you lads, see what you can find, for we are bidden to leave ere the sun’s rising.” The pair exchanged an excited smile before vanishing from both sight and the Prince’s humble abode. They reappeared only a moment later, at least to Ithril’s perception, each shaking his head and a grim expression marring his countenance.

Ithril could not help but smile, “that bad, eh?”

“Worse!” said Kyan in disgust, “I have never beheld so miserable and small-souled a folk!”

Bayard agreed, “I had forgotten what home was like, and am grateful that it is so no longer. My father’s cruelty, pride, and miserliness either crush the spirit of his servants or encourage similar vice amongst them. You will find no suitable bride here, Sir.”

“As I thought,” said Ithril with an unconcerned yawn, “but the visit was not without its value, for I now know the measure of this particular lord and all his folk. Even if I do not find my bride amongst the great lords of men, at least I will know what to expect of each particular ruler and realm.”

Kyan grinned like the imp he was, “I knew there must be an ulterior motive.”

“Not ulterior,” said his master, “but rather let us say we are multitasking.”

“As you wish it, Sir,” said Bayard, barely stifling a laugh, added he with a grand bow, “so shall it be.”

 

Late that night, his lordship called his eldest son to him. He smiled proudly upon the dreadful warrior that strode boldly into his presence, said he without preamble, “there is some upstart Prince about the keep. Your youngest brother has taken it into his head to gad about the countryside with the rascal, and he even has the temerity to ask after the hand of one of your sisters. See that these impugners of my honor are dealt with.” The Knight bowed, a horrible smile on his face, cruel and eager, and left his father to settle the matter immediately.

He roused one of his many pages from a sound sleep and ordered the boy to learn what he could of the upstart Prince and his companions from the other servants and menials about the place. The boy squawked in dismay and fled his master’s presence, wondering again why he ever felt he could serve such a man. There could only be one reason for such an inquiry and it boded ill for the strangers in the keep. He dashed off to the foreign lord’s door, at the very back of the servant’s quarters, so perhaps his master would assume he was rousing witnesses from their beds in order to question them.

He knocked desperately, knowing his master would not take such a betrayal lightly but also knowing he could not live with himself were something to happen to the foreign prince and he had done nothing to stop it. It was an impropriety of the worst sort, disturbing the nobility at that hour, even one foreign born, but murder was an even greater indecency so perhaps the strange lord would overlook this grievous breach of protocol. The door opened immediately and he ducked into the room without permission or explanation, the curious occupant closing it tightly behind him and looking at the boy in both curiosity and amusement.

Said the boy after a cursory bow, “forgive my disturbing you at this hour, sir, but my master, the Lord’s own son and heir, means some mischief towards you and yours and I had to warn you.”

Bayard studied the boy anew, “I thank you for the warning.” He smiled wryly, “not that I expected any less of my brother or father.”

The boy flinched, “the rumors are true then? You are the master’s youngest son?”

“I was,” said Bayard with a sigh, “but after this bit of nonsense I suppose he’ll disown me entirely and disavow that I was ever born.”

Just then the door burst open and said elder brother strode into the room, sword bared, “ah, brother, just the man I wanted to see.” He glared at the mutinous page and added, “along with this traitor. Now go fetch your so-called Prince and we’ll settle this matter here and now.”

“You’ll just have to deal with me,” said Bayard stonily, “no matter how hard you look, you won’t be find him.”

The villain smiled cruelly and hefted his sword, “we’ll see about that, brother.” As he spat the last, he ran his insolent sibling through the heart, turned upon the helpless page, ransacked the miniscule room, and stormed off in search of his remaining quarry.

The page thought himself in some sort of moribund delirium as he lay there dying and watched the laws of reality unravel about him. His former master searched the apartment, but in vain, before striding violently from the room, but that was no surprise, rather the moment the door slammed behind the retreating knight, the whole world went mad. The boy lay at such an angle that he could watch a small lizard emerge from its hiding place beneath a garish sofa, but suddenly it was not a reptile but a man, the very Prince the furious knight was even then seeking with all his might. The foreign lord ignored his slain minion but looked sadly upon the mortally wounded page. He glanced significantly off to one side and the boy strained his neck to look at what had caught the Prince’s attention.

The boy gasped, for it was one thing for a lizard to become a man, it was quite another for a man to appear out of thin air! Kyan caught his lord’s eye and nodded eagerly, kneeling beside the dying page. The moment the Knight touched the dying lad, the pain, shortness of breath, and gnawing darkness immediately fled, but Kyan did not rise from his crouch nor remove his slightly glowing hand from the lad’s shoulder. Ithril then addressed the astonished boy with a slightly amused smile, “it seems you have thrust yourself into matters even your great lord can hardly begin to fathom. Will you join us?”

“Us, Sire?!” said the boy, half eager, half terrified.

Ithril smiled upon his companions, living and dead, “I am in need of a faithful man in this place, to keep an eye on things and ward it against certain minions of darkness.”

“I do not understand,” said the boy, his eagerness overcoming his dread, impatient to hear more of this enigma.

“Of course not,” said the Prince, his smile vast and amused, “this is a fairy tale after all and it would not be such if you knew every plot twist ere the story was begun. You think yourself a dead man, but what if you might live again, but rather as one beyond death?”

“It is not possible!” said the boy breathlessly, but then he had just been privy to some rather strange demonstrations, so who knew what was possible for his uncanny companions? Then a disturbing thought occurred to him as he studied the strange Prince anew, frowning in consternation, “can I trust you sir? My former master was certainly a man of vile character, do I ally myself with another such? And if things are as you say, does that not imperil my immortal soul?”

“Excellent questions all,” said Ithril with a satisfied nod, “no servant of mine, at least in this curious service, can be anything but a veritable servant of the Master, Whose I am also.”

The boy exhaled in delight, “then be it unto me as you have spoken sir, I am quite desirous of unraveling these riddles with which you have presented me and I do not think sitting here gabbing about it will assist me in the least.”

“Well said,” replied Ithril with a chuckle, “they’ll anticipate finding a pair of dead men in this room and thus we must abide by their expectations, but once you waken, you’ll know what to do. Find yourself a position within the keep and ward it well in my name. I will summon you to give an account of all that has happened here when all is accomplished, which may be one day hence or centuries by mortal perception, even I do not know the day or the manner in which all is to be achieved, only that Prophecy says it must.” He nodded to Kyan and immediately everything was wonderful, glorious Light, and then utter darkness.

They left Bayard where he lay, knowing he would catch up when the opportunity presented itself and that he must likewise play the corpse, that mortal sensibilities not be too grievously offended on the occasion, not that the Prince disappearing utterly from the keep with none the wiser would sit well with his Lordship, but that minor inconvenience could in nowise be helped. “To the stables first,” said Ithril with a smile to Kyan, “I would not leave my horse behind, I’ve grown rather fond of him.”

Kyan laughed, “and a beast that has acquired a bit of the wisdom of the elves is a rare creature indeed, at least in mortal lands.” He held out his hand, “whenever you are ready, Sir.” Ithril touched the outstretched hand and both vanished as if they had never been, stopping briefly in the stables to collect their mounts, and then vanishing again as quick as thought. The only groom awake at that hour scratched his head in dismay, blinked twice at the strange vision, and then cast aside the flask from which he had been sipping for most of the night.

They reappeared on a misty hillside, bright beneath the moon. Bayard appeared not a moment later and smiled in vast amusement at his companions, “I hope I did not long delay you, Sir?”

“Not in the least,” said Ithril with a welcoming nod, “but we have the entire world to search, though we have all of Time to be about it, I’d rather not spend too long in idle conversation.”

Bayard laughed as he gained his saddle, “as you wish it Sir, so shall it be.” They turned their horses as if to ride down the hill but rather vanished like shadows in the sun.

 

So it was that they roamed the Kingdoms of men, ever in search of a potential bride for that strange and mysterious Prince. In each land, realm, and village, no suitable lady was ever found, but a newly minted Knight found himself warding his former home for his new lord from any undead minions of evil that felt inclined to interfere in mortal affairs ere the Prince vanished from that place.

Once the holdings of the great lords and kings of men had been exhausted, they began to comb the remoter villages and scattered settlements, straying even into the wilderness in search of she who must be found, but still no lady would avail them. At last they came again to a certain sod hut upon a forgotten hillside just as the sun was on the rise, their journey having taken centuries yet only a single night by the old shepherd’s count of days. He hastened from his cot, spry as a new lamb on spring grass, and went to greet his returned lord, though they had not been long sundered, at least by his reckoning.

“Ah,” said Ithril in satisfaction, “Master Shepherd, I see you have faithfully awaited my coming, but how long has it been to your sensibilities?”

“It is the morning after you left, Sir,” said the man in wonder, “and yet you’ve sought the whole world over?”

“Indeed,” said Ithril with a wry smile, “only to return to the very place our journey began, some hundreds of years by our count, but only hours to yours. The lady is well?”

The formerly ancient man chuckled, “still sound asleep and as fit as the moment you left her, Sir.”

“Good,” said Ithril with a pleased smile, “then I shall send my companions off to prepare the way for our coming whilst I plight my troth with the lady and beg her father’s blessing.” Kyan and Bayard exchanged a concerned look, at which their lord laughed and said, “I will be well attended by this good shepherd whilst I go a-courting, lads, there’s no need to look so grim about my safety.” But they knew how dangerous had been his wanderings, how many scrapes, traps, and ambushes he had barely escaped, but they also knew they could not watch over him forever and must trust his fate and safety to their Master as ever they had entrusted their own.

But before they could vanish upon the errand just set them, a lilting voice sang out, “what are you fellows doing out in the damp and wet of dawn? Come in and eat something, you’ve less sense than your sheep!”

Kyan exchanged a wry grin with Ithril, “your lady awaits, Sir.”

Ithril chuckled, “she already knows a thing or two about being Queen, or at least about giving orders. We had best obey.” He winked at Kyan, “that and I wouldn’t mind seeing how she treats my competition.”

Kyan winced, “as you wish it, but would you rather not send me on some vital errand to the antipodes; I am sure there is some dire quest that must be attended to this very moment?”

“I would not miss this for the world,” said Ithril with a grin, “but come, it is rude to keep a lady waiting.” With one accord, they turned back towards the hut and breakfast, each trying desperately to maintain a neutral mien.

They ducked into the dim interior of the shepherd’s cot and settled down to the simple but substantial meal before them; it was a lively meal for them all, the girl’s blushes at the stranger’s marked attention not hindering her tongue in the least nor did it keep her from glancing at Kyan now and then just to see if he noticed and his reaction thereto. She was rather disappointed to see only vast amusement sparkling in his eyes, rather than any sort of worry, concern, fear, or anger that another might be courting in his stead. If that was how he felt upon the matter, then she too could feign indifference and show this charming young stranger that his interest was not unwelcome.

The meal finished, Ithril stood, stretched, and said, offering the maid his hand, “would you walk with upon the downs, lady?” She nodded her eagerness as Ithril gave his companions a significant look, which they instinctively knew to mean they should be about their business whilst he was about his own.

The young couple exited the cottage as the shepherd pounced upon Kyan, “I suppose he means that I should follow, but how is it to be done discretely?”

The boy grinned widely, “you can make yourself invisible, at least to mortal eyes, with simply a thought.”

The seemingly ancient man chuckled, “this new occupation is vastly more interesting than herding sheep.” With that, he vanished from sight but there came a muffled thump as he tried to walk through the wall in pursuit of his new master, but failed to properly concentrate. The boys exchanged an amused grin before vanishing about their own task, leaving the unseen shepherd to figure out that particular skill on his own.

 

“Well, here we are,” said Bayard with a grin, “back where we started, very nearly when we started too!”

“It has been quite the adventure,” said Kyan, he frowned, “or will be, since most of it hasn’t happened yet? I wonder if I will ever understand temporal metaphysics?”

“Enough with your philosophical maunderings,” said Bayard with good-natured disgust, “I am getting a headache, which must be rather significant since we no longer suffer bodily pain. How are we to put this ruin in order?”

Kyan grinned at his most impish and Bayard knew he was in trouble, said Kyan, “I still have a very hard time comprehending that the annoying neighbor girl, a shepherdess at that, is going to be a Queen. Back in my rapscallion days, I would probably suggest that this forsaken rock heap is quite good enough for her.”

Bayard merely arched an eyebrow, “what do you mean by referring to your rapscallion days in the past tense? As far as anyone who has ever met you is concerned, you are an incurable reprobate. Now this rock heap might suffice for you and your one time beloved, but it certainly will not do for our master nor his bride, and he has particularly asked our assistance in this matter and I think we had best heed him.”

“For his sake, of course,” said Kyan with that same grin, perhaps worse, if that were possible, but he quickly sobered and focused on the business at hand. His hand began to glow as he approached the nearest heap of rubble. Hardly knowing what it was he did, he touched his radiant hand to the fallen stones and immediately they began to glow and move and shift, until the broken wall had knitted itself back into what it must have been before tragedy struck. Bayard was similarly busy on the other side of the courtyard, and between them, they soon had the ruined keep standing proud and whole once more, towering boldly over the valleys it warded long ago.

“They have a place to live,” said Bayard thoughtfully, “but it is hardly fit for a lady to call home, most especially a Queen.” He eyed his companion warningly, but Kyan only smiled slightly and refrained from making light of her humble heritage, for was she not to be their lady and mistress, due all respect and honor, despite having once been ‘that annoying girl next door?’ Besides, if their Master could make a Knight out of a shepherd, why not a Queen? And somehow, each knew that the time of their friendly banter with the Prince had come to an end, for they were no longer merry companions adventure bent, but rather servants in the hall of their esteemed lord.

At last Kyan said thoughtfully, “if we can rebuild a castle, why can’t we likewise set it in order that everything is ready upon our lord’s return?”

Bayard gaped, “it is one thing to set fallen stones in their previous places, you speak of restoring that which has rotted to dust, perhaps even of raising the dead!”

The magpie suddenly flitted between them and settled boldly on an ancient hitching rail, said He, “and that is precisely what I have tasked you with doing, for certainly you need My power and permission to exercise those particular miracles, but knowing that you have it, fear not to continue as your lord has bidden you.” He was gone in a flash of white and black feathers as suddenly as He had come. The boys exchanged an eager smile and immediately resumed their task.

Bayard was vastly happy to realize that he was merely restoring what the minions of evil had destroyed a millennium ago, for he had no flare for the artistic, at least when it came to linens and tapestries. Each of the Knights wandered through the great halls, touching a glowing hand here and there as they felt the need, and with each touch, here a painting materialized on the wall, there a great rug covered the floor, or an awestruck servant gasped back to life. While the paintings and silverware and furniture were certainly needful and interesting, it was the restoration of their fellow men that the pair found most intriguing. Each gasped, groaned, moaned, or screamed, however it was they had perished that terrible night a thousand years ago, but suddenly they glanced about in wonder, feeling at their now absent wounds in disbelief, and then they smiled up into the eyes of the mystified Knight who had restored them to form and function.

The first such personage Kyan restored seemed to be a scholar in his middle years, who suddenly appeared prostrate on the floor of one of the corridors where he had fallen in his flight as madness consumed the castle. He gasped like a stranded fish, then frowned, turning astonished eyes upon the equally mystified boy. He gazed perplexedly about him, having been certain that only a moment before the corridors had been filled with sword wielding barbarians howling like a night in storm as smoke choked the night dark air, heavy with winter’s chill. But here he was, sitting on the floor beside the most unobtrusive lad he had ever set eyes upon in the middle of a summer afternoon. He regained his feet, as sitting on the floor was certainly not befitting the dignity of a scholar of his standing, and addressed the boy, who seemed to find the whole situation far too amusing for said dignity to long bear in silence, quoth he, “what is the meaning of this? What madness has seized me, the castle, or the entire world?”

Kyan offered him a very proper bow and said quite respectfully, “no madness sir, merely a miracle.”

“A miracle, eh?” said the professor, stroking his spindly beard thoughtfully, “so I am to understand that the castle was truly under siege?”

“All were put to the sword sir,” said the boy grimly, “and everything burned.”

“Gracious!” declared the scholar, “my books!”

Kyan could not help but smile, “have been restored, just as you yourself have been, along with everything and everyone else.”

Forgetting his dignity for a moment, the man smiled wryly, “it seems my priorities need some attention! Here I am worried about my books, quite forgetting my life and everyone else’s were likewise forfeit.” He frowned, “how long has it been?”

“A thousand years,” said the boy.

The man’s jaw dropped but he snapped it shut for the sake of his humbled, but not forgotten, dignity, “what has come of the world?”

Said the boy, “the whole Kingdom hereabouts fell under a curse, the residents reduced to fretful shadows awaiting the advent of a True King.”

“The Prophecy!” said the man in growing anticipation, “he is coming at last!”

“Yes,” said the joyous boy, “and we were sent to prepare the way.”

“As we have been called back to waking life to serve him as we might,” said the eager man; he smiled wryly, “I had hoped to see his coming, but had certainly not anticipated this was how it would be accomplished! Tell me, what fair maid has he chosen as his Queen?”

Kyan could not help but grin, but happily there was more of joy in it than roguishness, “he has sought the whole world over among ever kindred and kingdom of men for a worthy bride, but found her at last among the hill shepherds.”

“This is a story indeed!” said the scholar in near ecstasy, “of course I will have to write a ballad about it in time for his coming. Tell me everything!” Kyan eagerly complied as he continued to walk the corridors, restoring all to its previous splendor with the eager scholar tagging after like an eager duckling, chattering questions one atop the other like a brook in flood. So it was that the entire castle, with its entire complement of dwellers and contents, was restored to its former splendor, as if the evil of that night had never been and all eagerly awaited the advent of their prophesied lord.

 

Meanwhile, said lord was becoming better acquainted with his intended lady and must later in the day plead his case with her father. Strangely, for such a fearsome and powerful creature, he was rather reluctant to face his future father-in-law; he smiled wryly at this, for he had faced far worse terrors and villains in his day, what was one more? But his lady drew him away from his introspection as she laughed merrily, “what is this you say sir? If you are not a shepherd, then what is your trade? And why bother courting a mere shepherd’s daughter?”

Said Ithril slowly, wishing to gauge the girl’s reaction, “I will be King over all these lands, and you, my dear girl, I hope you will consent to be my Queen.”

She stopped suddenly, pallid as milk, all mirth forgotten, “you are not in jest?! Me!”

He smiled gently at her, “indeed, I have searched the whole world over to find you, but I am heartened that at least you believe me.”

Mastering herself, she said with a slight smile, “but likely my father will not. He has been eyeing our neighbor’s flock for many a year and ever he urged me to make an alliance with his adopted son.”

Ithril shook his head in amusement, “and he would rather have that particular flock of sheep rather than his daughter a Queen!”

“That about sums him up,” laughed she.

“If that is his brideprice,” said Ithril with a grin, “I am sure I can arrange matters; perhaps this interview will not be as trying as I had thought.” He smiled at the lady, “will you join me on this adventure, milady?” Her smile was answer enough; now to treat with her father.

“Ye want to marry me daughter?” said the man aghast, “well I hardly know ye!”

Said Ithril quite respectfully, “what if your neighbor was to vouch for my character?”

“That would be helpful,” said the man thoughtfully, “but I cannot let the lass wander off with just any man. Keepin’ sheep is all she knows and is quite a respectable sort o’life, how do you propose to keep the girl fed and clothed if you won’t follow the sheep?”

“I’ll see that she becomes a veritable princess,” said Ithril eagerly.

“Hmmph,” said his unconvinced host. Just then came a knock upon the humble door and said neighbor entered when bidden to do so, rejoiced the skeptical father, “just the man I need! This young upstart says you’ll vouch for him.”

“Indeed,” chuckled the shepherd turned Knight, “you could not find a finer son-in-law nor your daughter a better man. In fact, I had just come over to ask if you would take my flock, as I will soon be departing with the man in question.”

Eagerness flashed in the skeptical man’s eyes, but he did his best to appear thoughtful and importuned upon, saying slowly, “well if that be the case, I am sure you can keep the young’uns out of trouble. Very well, marry the lass and I’ll keep an eye on them sheep.”

The elder shepherd could not help but laugh, “as you’ve kept your eye on them for as long as I’ve known you.”

“Hmmph,” was all he said.

 

That night, Bayard and Kyan returned to the shepherd’s house to tell of their surprising and most excellent day’s work and to hear how things had gone with the Prince’s wooing. “Excellent,” said Ithril, “now all we need is a good elven seamstress.”

Kyan grinned most widely, “nay Sire, for that has already been attended to. There are no less than three elven maids at work this very moment along with any number of their assistants and apprentices; no sooner had we restored the dear ladies to form and function than they set to work immediately on the requisite regalia for your wedding.” His grin widened, “and there is even a rather scholarly bard at work on the ballad of our recent adventures.”

Ithril smiled at the first but sighed at the second, said he in unfeigned dread, “has this bard a name?”

“If he has,” said Kyan in concern, “he never mentioned it, so busy was he digging for details to be immortalized in song and story.”

The Prince looked as if he needed a tooth pulled, “that phrase alone, ‘immortalized,’ is enough to tell me who it is; that was the only good thing that happened that dreadful night: the destruction of that man’s entire, extensive collection of bad poetry!”

“Why do they let him hang about the place, as full of talented scholars as it is, if his work is so dreadful?” asked Bayard curiously.

Ithril smiled in wry reminiscence, “if they barred him from the place, he’d read his work aloud, an event that well might spell a doom worse than befell it; if they leave him alone, he is so busy writing the horrid stuff that it remains safely entombed in volume after volume of doggerel verse. They long thought it a wise practice to let sleeping doggerels lie.”

Changing the subject, the shepherd asked, “bad puns aside, what next is to be done, Sir?”

“We must send out the invitations,” said Ithril, with a smile that boded ill for the man who was so overbold as to suggest that his punning was a thing as abhorrent as a certain man’s poetry.

Kyan interjected, risking his own life thereby, “who then will go to the elves?” The Prince’s smile only deepened, killing even Kyan’s irrepressible grin thereby.

 

“That’s what we get for opening our big mouths, lad,” chuckled the shepherd, as he and Kyan went in search of a door into the elven lands to deliver the Prince’s invitation.

“It’s worse than you think,” said the boy gloomily, “we may spend the rest of eternity trying to find a door we can open!”

The elder Knight chuckled, “use your head lad, I taught you better than that. You’ve been at this far longer than I, and even I figured out what must be done.”

The boy frowned thoughtfully, having followed after the Prince so long that he had become used to following his lead. Of course the man would need to enter by an approved door when making an official visit of state, but no matter the magic of the elves, nothing could keep a Knight upon Official Business out. Kyan grinned ear to ear as the pair of them vanished, only to appear the next moment before the very throne of the Elven King. They both bowed to the appropriate degree as the shepherd proffered the Prince’s elegant invitation. The King snarled at both their temerity and sudden intrusion, but he took the missive, glanced over it, and tossed it carelessly over his shoulder, growling, “tell his Highness that I must decline his most gracious invitation. This is a matter that certainly does not concern the Elves!” The Knights exchanged a sad look, bowed anew, and vanished once more.

They reappeared in their previous seats at the shepherd’s battered table, where Ithril sat writing out his invitations. He smiled at their troubled expressions and said cheerily, “I didn’t think they would come, but they’d be highly insulted not to be asked; at least they can’t kill my messengers and it certainly saves on postage!” With that, he pushed a stack of finished invitations towards them and said, “off with you, lest I find you in possession of too much leisure time and condemn you to interminable invitation writing alongside me.” They exchanged a horrified glance and then a hearty laugh, took up the elegant letters, and vanished once more, the official postmen of the Prince of the North.

The invitations were sent to every noble lord and minor king of every kindred yet extant in the mortal world, many scoffed or laughed scornfully or sneered, but for all those who held the coming nuptials in contempt, there were many who wished the storied Prince well, and either made plans to come themselves or to send an envoy with a fabulous gift and their heartiest congratulations. As the day of the wedding and coronation approached, the Prince, still headquartered in the unassuming shepherd’s hut, made his plans and sent his missives and marshaled his troops in preparation for the big day, knowing his enemies did not sleep and nothing would please them more than to use what should be a grand celebration to at last triumph over their ancient foe and prophesied bane.

Said the Prince one morning to his minions three, “no undead worker of evil can set foot within the castle proper, but that provision will not inhibit my mortal enemies, but you are useless against such foes and that duty must fall to others. But there is a matter I must address and with which you can be of assistance: we must face the shades lurking in the hills and give them the chance either to repent and live again as mortal men or to vanish forever beyond the confines of this world if they will not; I will not bring my bride home to a land infested with muttering shadows! The time is at hand for their release, one way or another; I only hope a thousand years of futility has taught them something.”

Kyan shook his head, “I fear not Sire, for in our own journey through that land, their presence was quite unsettling and certainly bitter.”

“Be that as it may,” said the Prince, “they will have their chance at last.” With these words, the Prince vanished with his original escort, leaving the ancient shepherd to ward his lady. They stood upon a great hill in the gathering dusk, and felt rather than saw thousands of creeping shadows drawn inexorably to them. Said Ithril once full dark had fallen and the shades sat muttering and murmuring about him, seething with anger, fear, and eagerness, “the time of your release is come at last.” He paused and let the creatures react as they would in dread or joy, before continuing, “you were thus cursed long ago for the wickedness and cruelty in which you lived and treated others. Repent now of your evil, and walk again as mortal men, freely under sun and star, or retreat forever into the fathomless dark, never more to trouble this world or any other.” Like a tidal wave of infinite night, the outraged shadows flowed together and tried to wash over the impudent Prince, but the two silent figures on either side suddenly burst forth into an unbearable light. With a pathetic wail, the flood receded and its instigators with it, leaving here and there astonished but joyous individuals scattered upon the face of the hill, a remnant of those once cursed while the others vanished beyond the sphere of the world.

The Prince smiled joyously at the remnant, but sorrow at the willingly chosen fate of their former kinsmen touched his voice, “go home in peace. And tomorrow, come to the castle and let us celebrate together as a new day dawns upon these forsaken hills!” The hundred or so former shades cheered eagerly as each withdrew to their former abodes, wondering what could be left after so many long and empty years. But Kyan and Bayard were there before them, restoring all to its former form and function ere the inhabitants returned home. Great was their joy at such provision and greater still their hope of what that land could be under the rule of a wise and just man. When his Knights returned from their errand, Ithril smiled broadly at them and said, “a nice bit of work lads, but come, for tomorrow I marry and restore a Kingdom!” They vanished anew, leaving only the wind to sigh in the grass while silent stars watched above.

 

They gathered there, wellwishers and naysayers alike, for few wished to miss the chance to watch Prophecy itself unfold, or perhaps they hoped it would all come to naught and they would be there to laugh it to scorn. From the ends of the earth they came, from nearly every kindred and Kingdom, great and small alike, for not only did they come as guests and witnesses, but also some came to stay. Not a few men found their hearts stirred, that perhaps it was time they started anew in that strange and promising land, for a Kingdom needed citizens, and many were those that answered the call, some the distant descendants of those who had flown in fear on a dark night a millennium ago, at last they could return with joy on that bright morning. Some walked, setting out even before they knew the when or where or why, only knowing that they must. Others fell in with a Knight and found themselves immediately in those strange lands, eager for all that was to come and hardly astonished by the means of their coming, for somehow they knew themselves in a veritable fairy tale and nothing thereafter was like to surprise them in the least.

So it was, the Prince was married and crowned King that very day with great joy before the eyes of all the world and so too was his Kingdom founded. It was a happy tale for many long years, for he was wise and just and merry and his kingdom prospered like no other in mortal lands, but that Age, like all legends, eventually faded into mist and myth, until the drier and duller years of history began, wherein men grew too wise to believe in fairy tales any longer, but that is another tale entirely.

 

 

Other Books by this Author:

The Serpent and the Unicorn: Book I and II

The Serpent and the Unicorn: Book III

The Serpent and the Unicorn: Book IV and V

Once a Thief

A Song of Lesser Days

Thus It Began

Legends of the Brethren: The Sampler

Legends of the Brethren: The Complete Series

In Shadow

 

The Greylands

[+ On Princesses+]

[+ On Heroes+]

[+ Over the Hills and Far Away+]

 

Want to Know More?:

Official Website

Author’s Blog

 

 

On Sleeping Beauties: A Foible

“No, no, no!” rang the irate fairy’s strident voice as she perused the text before her, “this will never do, not in the least! That’s not how it happened at all!”

“What’s wrong with it?” gasped her journalistic companion in surprise, “I thought you were a Reformed Evil Fairy or some such?”

Her glare froze him in his seat as she replied icily, “that does not mean I will swoon and sigh over this pathetic drivel you have the audacity to call literature. Not even my goody-goody sister is that insipid.”

“But what is wrong with it?” said the flummoxed, and rather nervous, writer in growing despair.

“The better question,” said the fairy wryly, “is what is right with it. Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” She frowned slightly and added, “that and it is utterly dull.”

“Dull?!” said he, his ire suddenly replacing his fear and surprise, “it is the consummate fairy tale!”

“That’s the problem,” said she with a heavy sigh, “I’ve had to give up the genre entirely in these latter years; it probably isn’t your fault, the world isn’t what it used to be. I suppose you don’t even believe in dragons?”

“Of course not,” said the man with a sneer, “why should I? Nor unicorns either, for that matter.”

“So you can put a rider on your home insurance policy, of course” said the fairy with a laughing smirk, “what happens if a dragon should happen to fly over your house and sneeze?” He paled at this, wondering if his disbelief were so wise and trendy after all. She continued, “as for unicorns, there’s not really any practical reason to believe in them, but it’s to your own loss if you don’t.” He frowned at her, not catching her meaning but she was not about to enlighten him further.

Said he after a long and awkward silence, “very well, madam, I suppose since I importuned you for this very reason. You had best tell me how to improve my manuscript.”

“Much better,” said the Reformed Fairy of Blackfen, with something almost resembling a genuine smile. She took up the paper again and scanned the text, muttering under her breath as she read, “big party…angry fairy…the girl will die…irritating cousin mitigates the curse…pricks her finger on a spindle…long nap…smooch from a handsome prince…happily ever after.” She looked up at him and said solemnly, “if you must know, it is very tedious indeed.” His mouth fell open in astonishment but she charged on before he could utter anything he might afterwards regret, as he was in the presence of a magical person who did not suffer fools lightly, said she, “your characters have no personality, your plot has no depth, there isn’t even a sprinkling of humor in it, the danger and suspense is nonexistent as we all know the prince will come eventually. That and it’s historically inaccurate.”

“Fine,” grumped the journalist, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed, and the look of a sulking toddler on his face, “enlighten me.”

“Oh, that I will,” said the fairy in true delight as she tossed the paper aside, laughed she, “and it doesn’t even begin with ‘Once upon a time:’

 

“I need a baby,” said the noble lady to her husband as he entered their extensive and fashionable house. He stared at her blankly for a moment, as if wondering why she just did not go out and procure one like she did her dresses and shoes, rather than bothering him with such trifling little details, but before he could fathom the full import of her words, she plunged ahead, “I was just over at the Jones’s and they have the cutest little boy! Oh, darling! I want one; I must have one! Wouldn’t a little girl be just the thing to liven up this rather dreary old house? Think of the adorable little clothes and the accessories I could buy! The congratulations and adulation that would flow in!”

He was about to protest that babies were theoretically expensive, and from what he had heard, they were quite noisy and dreadfully messy, not to mention rather inconvenient, but then that is what one had staff for, was it not? And as money was no object in that particular household, why not? “Very well darling,” said he, “if it makes you happy, nothing could please me more.”

But it seems infants are slightly harder to procure than shoes of a particular size and shade, which is hard enough, most especially when you are impatient for the fulfillment thereof. So it was that little Midas Jones was walking and beginning to babble almost recognizable verbiage, which his mother insisted were words, whilst our esteemed lady’s frustrations mounted over her inability to produce such an adorable creature of her own, but more importantly she was unable to reap the social excitement and congratulations that would undoubtedly flow unceasingly from such a fount. She consulted every known sorcerer, apothecary, physician, and herbalist she could find who specialized in such matters, but all to no avail.

But just as the baby craze seemed to be fading in that particular neighborhood, though exotic poultry were becoming quite fashionable, our lady found herself the mother of a beautiful little girl, in celebration of which, they threw a fantastic party, inviting everyone who was anyone in the entire Kingdom and beyond. The happy couple stood at the door greeting their guests as carriage after carriage rolled up and disgorged one fabulously clad celebrant after another, all obviously bored silly and there out of duty rather than any fondness for children in general or this couple in particular. The proud parents had just turned to follow the last invited guest into the house, when a rather irritated throat cleared behind them, drawing their attention. “Yes?” said the perplexed lady of the house to the rather curiously dressed individual loitering upon her expensive and stately steps.

“I fear my invitation must have been mislaid or lost by the carrier, for I never received it,” said the interesting personage.

“Invitation?!” said the lady, quite aghast that this odd person could even think that she would ever extend an invitation to such a peculiar and shabbily clad being.

“It is the only explanation,” said the creature, quite indifferent to the hostess’ shock, “for who would dare not invite me?”

“Who or what are you, madam?” said the astounded lady.

“What?” said the disturbing vision, with a certain dangerous edge in her voice that even the flabbergasted lady could not miss, “I am not a what but a who, madam! I am the Fairy of Blackfen.”

“Ah!” said the relieved host, coming to his lady’s rescue, “that explains it then. For you see, we don’t happen to believe in fairies, it is quite unfashionable and therefore unthinkable, and since we do not believe in your existence, well, you can’t expect an invitation when you don’t exist now, can you? No hard feelings I hope. Ta ta!” He stared at her expectantly for a moment, as if he expected her to immediately tip over dead, and then seemed rather crestfallen when she failed to do anything half so obliging.

The fairy frowned at him, “why are you standing there gaping?”

“I would think you of all people would have read that particular story?” said he in wonder, “when I said, ‘we don’t believe in fairies,’ aren’t you supposed to drop dead or something?”

The fairy said with a longsuffering sigh, but could not entirely hide her wry smirk, “I am afraid that particular story is not this particular story, thus the rules are quite different. So sorry to disoblige you, now what about my invitation?”

“I am afraid not,” said the lady of the house with a firm shake of her head, “it would never do! Your attire alone is five hundred years out of fashion, not to mention what my neighbors would think if I actually let a fairy in the house! It would be utterly ridiculous and I could never again show my face in fashionable society. Now if you were a leprechaun or some other well-to-do and currently in-vogue pixie-type person, I might make an exception, but it is completely unthinkable in this instance! I bid you good day, madam; I have a party to host!”

The fairy laughed darkly and said in her most sinister voice, which was impressively creepy, “what if I threatened to curse your child else?”

“Oh, would you!” said the lady in sudden delight. At the astonished and confused looks she received not only from the fairy but also from her husband, she added by way of explanation, “little Midas Jones was hexed after calling the new teacher at his Montessori, ‘an ugly old hag,’ when she pinched him and said he looked good enough to eat. It was only the truth after all, but still she sued the Montessori and won enough money to pay cash for that homely old gingerbread mansion down the street. Who builds with carbs nowadays? Anyway, then she went and cursed him besides. Now everything he touches turns to gold! I had thought about asking if we could babysit now and again, but this would be even better.” Her husband still looked rather perplexed, though the fairy now seemed to understand far more about this particular couple than they knew about themselves. The lady rolled her eyes and sighed, “what is it dear? What was unclear about what I just said?”

The man shook his head, “what’s a Montessori? Some sort of fancy sandwich shop?”

With another sigh, his wife expounded, “it is an elite and expensive school for very young children, I had one picked out even before our daughter was born; you can’t start too early, you know.” She eyed the fairy eagerly, “what do you think?”

Said the fairy dryly, “I don’t think there’s a worse curse I could lay on you people than the existence you already lead.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” snapped the lady in vexation, “the Jones’s have a child with a curse, how am I to be content without one too?”

The fairy wore a mocking smile, “you continue to prove my point, madam. But I won’t be cursing your wretched whelp with anything half so interesting as the golden touch. I suppose I could destine her to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a wakeless sleep, or even to die; it’s trite, but effective.” She frowned, “but then there’s always the matter of some pesky prince showing up and ruining everything; I can’t abide a ‘happily ever after.’ No, I’ll leave things as they are, I’ll let you stew in your insipidness and go vainly about your pathetic lives, but I will not forget this and one day, I will have my revenge on the entire neighborhood. It used to be an actually respectable part of the Kingdom, except maybe for that troll under the bridge, but I’d take him over any of your ilk, drat those goats! At least he kept the riffraff out.”

The lady looked rather baffled after this expostulation and asked for clarification upon the most important point, at least to her thinking, “what exactly is a spindle?”

The fairy sighed heavily, and replied, “I suppose you’ve never actually had to do any sort of actual handicrafts? Making your own dresses, spinning, sewing, that sort of thing?”

“Making dresses?” said the flummoxed lady, “I have never heard of anything so ridiculous! Why, I just send a page down to a certain seamstress with precise instructions as to what I want and need, and her lad brings it over in a trice. No fuss, no mess, just magic! Or does she grow them? Sewing indeed! What nonsense!”

The fairy’s head was in her hands, though whether trying to hide her amusement or frustration this tale does not tell, sighed she at long last, “never mind madam, it matters not.” And then she vanished. The baffled couple exchanged a perplexed look and then went in to their guests with quite the story to tell.”

 

“That is utterly ridiculous!” gasped the journalist, as the fairy paused in her telling of the tale.

“I know,” sighed the fairy, thinking she had made her point at last, “such was the state of the world even then, and it has only grown worse since.”

“No!” said the offended man, “they could have been my parents! What happened to the King and Queen? The castle? Who wants to hear a fairy tale set in the suburbs?”

“Apparently not you,” said the fairy darkly, but softening her tone, she said more graciously, “but then you can’t really help your upbringing I suppose and it explains much about your own lackluster tale.” She glanced derisively at the cast off manuscript, “I suppose you can’t help that! Now do you want to hear the rest of the tale or shall I call in a psychologist so you can work through your traumatic childhood first?”

“By all means, please continue,” said the man, who was now white as a ghost, though whether at the thought of displeasing this magically dangerous personage or at the very idea that he might need counseling, she did not know. She smiled in a very pleased fashion, for either would suffice, and then continued:

 

“After the congratulations and socially enforced awe that attend the advent of a new baby in the family had subsided to a mere trickle, and as the lady’s trendy chicken fetish consumed more and more of her time, the child was relegated to the care of a person known only as ‘nurse.’ And as Nurse was a rather old and perpetually exhausted person, she required a great deal of sleep, which only increased as the child grew, thus the dear lady spent most of her waking hours dozing in a chair in the garden whilst her charge ran amuck amongst the ferns and hedgerows. While her mother truly had picked out a Montessori, a husband, the names of her grandchildren, etc. before the girl was even born, the all-consuming pressure of trends and fashion soon turned her mind to other, more pressing concerns and her daughter’s brilliant future was quite soon forgotten therewith.

The disgruntled fairy had not forgotten her promise and watched the family with interest as the child grew, wondering if she could come up with a curse worse than the girl’s current reality. However, the girl was not without allies, for this particular fairy had a sister, one with whom she was not on very good terms, for in the elder’s usually blunt way of expressing things, she summed up her younger sister as a quote, ‘goody two-shoes!’ The younger saw what the elder was plotting and felt the need to intervene on behalf of the child, though whether she was protecting the girl from her parents or her vengeful sister, or both, was yet to be seen.”

 

“This is actually becoming a little bit interesting,” said the man, whose complexion had returned to a somewhat more natural color, “do you not find it odd to speak of yourself in the third person?”

The fairy glared at him and he was suddenly pallid as milk once more, said she, “if you would please not interrupt, you will soon discover that the story becomes quite interesting indeed. And a good storyteller has no difficulty in speaking in the third, fourth, or even fifth person!”

The man frowned, “the fifth person?”

“Only slightly more difficult to master than the fourth-and-a-half person,” said she with dancing eyes, causing his cheeks to redden in fury as he realized she was making fun of him rather than imparting the literary secrets of Faerie. Ignoring his interest in the grammatical rules peculiar to immortals, she continued:

 

“The great horse whinnied nervously; the knight looked around in dread, wondering what could cause the usually unflappable animal such unease. Such was its training that it did not flinch, even before dragons. The friendly light of eventide suddenly became the black of a storm-wracked night and all the whispered noises of a sylvan twilight were now as a tomb. A scornful female voice scoffed in the menacing gloom, “well hero? What will come of you? Will you live or die? Will you ride upon my whims or shall the earth swallow you whole?”

The man shuddered, but knew to his very soul that he could never serve such a vile mistress, said he as boldly as terror allowed, “do your worst, fell lady, but I shall never serve such as thee.” The only answer was her mocking laughter as the ground upon which the horse stood suddenly became treacherous as that of mire or fen. The horse screamed his terror but was soon silenced as they sank from the sight and knowledge of mortal men.”

 

“Certainly far more dramatic than my rendition,” said the man in approval, “but I still don’t see where a spindle fits into all of this?”

“You are utterly ruining my tale!” said she with another irritated glare, “and unless you want to finish the story as an amphibian, I would highly advise against further outbursts!” He swallowed audibly, eliciting a menacing smile from the lady as she continued:

 

“There had never been such a cheerful, skipping child as Kylee, who seemed more lark or sunbeam than daughter of men. Her joy it was to sing and dance through the wooded vales in mist and shadow, to whisper with the flowers of the garden when they were aglow with the morning sun, and to share secrets with the little birds that trilled in the hedges. Nor was she surprised to meet one day a creature as whimsical and joyous as herself, save this was a daughter of the fairies, rather than of the mortal race, but so alike were they in interest and temper that it mattered not. So it was they traversed field and fen together, laughing with the brook and dancing in the mists of dawn, learning the language of violet and swallow. Her parents would have been aghast to learn that she kept company with any fey creature, no matter how sweet of temper, but they took very little interest in her or her tales, and her nurse, when conscious, just assumed them to be the invention of a young and fanciful mind with too little interest in her own kind, but she could not contain this seemingly half-dryad creature without crushing her utterly or ruining a perfectly good nap, so Nurse allowed her to gad about as she would, thinking she would one day outgrow such nonsense. But outgrow it she never would.

The years passed and this whimsical bud blossomed into a fanciful maiden who still kept her secret trysts with her sister of fairykind, but had learned the wisdom of keeping silent upon the matter with less discerning mortals. Upon a misty morn of rose and gold, Kylee met the fairy lass amidst the dew soaked lilies, but the creature seemed apprehensive, a mood in which the girl had never before seen the irrepressibly blithe creature, said the fairy with trembling voice, “I bear dread tidings, my friend, but worse would it be if no one knew and nothing was done to prevent so great a tragedy.” Kylee was at her side in a moment, urging her to speak what she would, for it must be grim indeed to so upset a creature that might have been mirth incarnate. Continued she, “my sister, whose nature is quite contrary to my own, has used her magic to coerce and entrap any number of men, warriors all, that they may do naught but her will, this to spare their lives. She intends to loose these vile slaves upon all the folk hereabouts, to rid the countryside of mortal men and to restore order and dignity to the neighborhood, at least as she defines it.”

Kylee gasped, “can nothing be done?”

The fairy said grimly, “there is a chance but the cost is great.”

Kylee’s fear turned suddenly to a grim resolve, “speak dear friend, I will pay what price I must, if I can avail my folk.”

The fairy swallowed a sob, but continued, “my sister has captured a number of knights, unwilling to do her will, in the process of acquiring those of a more vile or fickle nature that she has enslaved, these objectors may perhaps oppose her fell minions if they can be wakened from the sleep that lies heavy upon them. But to break the enchantment, one must be found who is willing to endure endless sleep that these others might waken.”

Kylee nodded sadly, “I will try, what must I do?” The fairy flung herself into her friend’s arms and wept as if her heart would break, but after she had cried herself into relative acceptance, she told the girl all that must be done.”

 

“Truly pathetic!” said the man, unable to resist, even with the threat of a rather soggy future hanging over his head.

“I know,” sighed the fairy, who did not seem at that moment intent on carrying out her promise, “but what do you expect from two such sappy heroines? But even so,” she smirked at him in anticipation, before continuing, “no matter how saccharine or cavity inducing they might be, they are worlds better than your one dimensional characters!”

Said the now miffed man, not thrown off in the least by this venture into the realm of mathematics so soon after their grammatical discursion, “you say my characters have no more personality or interest than a dot, a single point in the space-time continuum?”

“Precisely,” said she in quiet triumph, “now on with my tale:

 

It was rather a dreadful trick, though quite ingenious, or so thought the Fairy of Blackfen, and at last she would have her revenge, one way or another, on those who had insulted her so long ago. If the girl were as insipid as her parents, she would be destroyed along with all her folk, but if she somehow managed to remain untainted by their futility and vanity, she would soon find herself napping until Time itself failed utterly. She drew back into the shadows and watched in eager anticipation what was to come. The most delicious part of the whole scheme was that her pansy of a sister thought she could use the girl to subvert her plans, when either outcome was just as satisfactory to the Fairy of Blackfen, though on second thought, the idea of the girl thinking to sacrifice herself on behalf of those who could not even comprehend such a scheme and wouldn’t care about it if they could, was rather delightful.”

 

“You can’t gloat in the third person,” sulked the man.

“I can do whatever I want,” said she, “I am the omniscient narrator! That includes turning you into a frog, by the way!”

He shuddered involuntarily, “I thought you were a Reformed Evil Fairy.”

“Only a Mostly Reformed Evil Fairy,” said she, savoring his discomfiture, “it is a process after all:

 

On the far side of the woods lay a wild land of moor and fen, amidst those forgotten hills was a cavern in which the knights slept as men in their tombs. Kylee set out immediately for that lonely heathland as the fairy vanished to distract her sister, that she might not know of this threat to her plan until it was too late, little knowing her sister’s true intentions. The journey was uneventfully made and as night was falling, Kylee found herself upon a stony hillside beneath a sky of lowering grey clouds. An archway of stone stood black and ominous before her, like the mouth of death. She took a deep breath and marched into the doorway. There was a slight glow in the otherwise gloomy cavern, for some sort of luminous fungus thrived therein. Upon each side lay a row of stone biers and upon each lay an unmoving knight, sword upon his breast, as one interred. She hastened to the far end of the seeming tomb where lay an empty stone bier, around which had coiled a thorny vine that bore spines, long and sharp as needles, and black roses, which stank of death and decay. As she crawled atop the bier, she pricked her finger upon one of the thorns, a single drop of blood fell atop the stony bed as the girl immediately fell into darkness.

A light glimmered in the doorway as the fairy entered to see what had come of her friend. The girl lay unmoving, pale as marble and cold as stone, upon her bier while all about the cavern, the sound of waking men and clinking armor filled the air. The fairy’s light and courage blazed forth as she called the groggy knights to arms and told them of all that had come to pass and what was yet to come. As one, they gazed upon the sleeping form of the maiden with pity and wonder, vowing to waken her in turn once the grim fairy’s minions were routed. They emerged from the cave and found their horses inexplicably waiting and eager upon the hillside. Once they were mounted, the fairy’s light engulfed them all, and they vanished, leaving the hillside to its lonely vigil, save that the great thorny rose encircling the girl’s bier grew to such vastness that it quickly covered the entire hill and filled the cavern in which she lay. Any who dared approach the sleeping figure would soon find themselves likewise enchanted by the merest scratch from those countless, terrible thorns.

The vile fairy unleashed her minions at full dark and intended none of her neighbors to see the morning, but her sister knew of her plans and sent her own knights to counter the plot. The fighting was fierce but the wakened knights were victorious and the grim fairy overthrown. The triumphant knights and their pixie captain surrounded the fell creature, who wore a look of haughty triumph even in defeat, scoffed she, “well met sister! A victory indeed, I did not think you had it in you, but what has it cost your dear little friend? She will never waken as long as the hills endure! You have salvaged the lives of those hereabouts but at what cost?” Her scornful laughter seemed to mock the rising dawn itself before she vanished into the whelming mist.

“What will come of her?” asked one of the Knights of the remaining fairy.

She shook her head and said, “she will likely get up to more mischief one day, but for now these folk might dwell in relative peace and safety.”

Asked another Knight, “what of the sleeping maid? Did the fell lady speak truly of her fate?”

The fairy said sadly, “she paid the price willingly and without hesitation. But great is the price to free her from the enchantment; I do not know if any would be willing to endure the cost, so she will likely sleep on until the world itself has passed into legend.”

“What then is the price?” asked the first Knight.

Said she, “one must journey to the far, distant hills that rim the very edge of the world. There grows a flower that is said to cure even death itself, but the price to pick them is great. The hand that plucks them must then cross the hills and leave the world forever behind. What lies beyond, none knows, but that is the price.”

There was much murmuring amongst the Knights, for they had not reckoned on such a cost. They had thought to fight monsters or fell men, to make a great journey and bold vows, but in the end to return triumphant. But this? To make the effort and never see the result; to strive and never return more? The cost was too great, the price too dear. One by one, they turned away with many fine words and much regret; the fairy wretchedly watched them go, but knew it better that they never attempt the journey than to have their hearts and courage fail at the last. All the men of renown and valor abandoned her that day, but the least of them all, a mere page, remained behind. She eyed the boy with grim hope, “and would you risk this thing when all your elders will not?”

The boy shrugged, “if none else will, that leaves only me. I will go.” He frowned, “how then are these flowers to reach the imperiled lady if I am not to return?”

Laughed she for very joy, “I will accompany you and bear them back to she that sleeps.”

The boy nodded grimly, “then we had best be on our way.” She laughed in relief and joy as the boy mounted his horse and they set forth into the dawning. As they traveled, asked he, “could you not pluck these flowers to save your friend?”

She looked sadly upon the boy and shook her head gravely, “nay, for my kind is not allowed beyond the confines of this world, only mortal man has that doom and that joy.” The boy nodded, but seemed perplexed by her words, but there was naught she could say to enlighten him, for it was just the way matters stood and was perhaps beyond mortal comprehension.

She could not harvest the flowers herself, but she could certainly help the boy in other ways and much did she ease the tedium and difficulty of travel with her magical talents and pleasant company, until at last, after a rather uneventful and relatively agreeable journey, they arrived upon the hills that bordered the verge of the world. It was an enchanting land of rolling hills, wide meadows, laughing brooks, and bright woodlands, but to the East there was no horizon of boundless blue sky, but rather a perpetual mist that seemed ever radiant with the new risen sun. Said she, “thence must you go once you have plucked the flowers.”

He studied the mist and some part deep within yearned above all else to discover its secrets. He smiled at her tremulously, “and where grow these wondrous plants?”

She smiled and pointed to the mist, “in the very vapor of the mist do they abide.” They walked slowly towards the verge and a wondrous scent filled the air.

He sighed with great eagerness, “they smell sweeter than life itself!”

“Aye,” said she, “and so will they drive away even the shadows of death. But come, the time is at hand. Does your courage fail you, even now?”

Laughed he for very joy, “nay lady, I long to plunge in and see what waits Beyond, if this is the mere border, what must lie at the heart?”

 

Chapter Sample of The Serpent and the Unicorn: Book I:

 

Long ago, when the world was young and men still walked in innocence, an ancient king made an alliance with the terrible god of war. In exchange for the life of his maiden daughter, he would receive power to conquer all the kingdoms of men and have dominion over all mortal lives. The night was dark with neither star nor moon giving light or hope to those who gathered upon the face of that forbidden hill to commence with their evil deed. The king had gathered all of his generals and advisors to stand as witnesses. The girl was brought forward and the hood removed from her head. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she stared with pleading eyes into the cold and remorseless depths of her father’s eyes. She saw neither love nor regret there, only a thirst for power beyond the reach of mortal ken. He drew forth a cruel knife from a sheath of black leather. Very soon the alliance would be sealed and no power on earth could withstand him. He approached the girl with a cruel and mirthless smile and raised the blade to strike.

He was thrown back from the girl and blinded by a cold light, and all standing around the pair fell to the ground in fear. Like a bolt of lightning, a bright and terrible figure stood between the man and his prey. The king regained his footing with a sneer and a triumphant laugh. “You have no authority here,” he scoffed, “be gone before I become violent.”

The light receded slightly and those standing about could make out a vaguely equine shape amidst the glow. The figure reared up on its hind legs and pawed the air. He appeared in the form of a horse but with the awe reserved for a charging bull or roaring lion. Then he spoke, “you must not do this terrible thing. You will forever tear apart the laws that bind the world together.”

“I will do as I please,” scowled the king, “and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

“If you are set upon this course I cannot stop you by force, but perhaps I can offer you an exchange,” said the figure.

“What can you possibly offer me,” growled the king with the light of avarice in his eyes.

“The foul demon with whom you are dealing demands innocent blood for your vile contract, so be it! Take mine instead of the girl’s,” said the mysterious figure.

“Yours!” gasped the king, “but of what advantage is that to you?”

“To ransom the life of this dear child shall be gain enough,” said the figure.

“Very well,” said the king. “I have a feeling my master will be quite pleased with the exchange. What is one small child when the blood of his enemy is laid at his feet? What are your terms?”

“Give me one hour to bear this child to safety, then I will return hither and you may do as we have agreed,” said the figure.

“How do I know you will not steal the child and disappear?” asked the king.

“You know very well I do not lie,” roared the figure. He swept the child onto his back and as the light disappeared over the rim of the hill called back, “in one hour I shall return.”

 

For a time the girl clung silently to the back of her rescuer but as the horror of what she had so nearly escaped sunk in she began to sob uncontrollably. “Do not weep little one,” said the figure, “you are safe and all will be well.”

“How can you say that?” sobbed the girl, “evil is about to be unleashed upon the earth and no one will be able to stop it.”

“I can,” said he softly. A sense of immense peace fell upon the girl and dried her tears. Shortly, they approached a small cottage by the edge of a little stream that chattered invisibly in the night. A woman emerged from the door and wrapped a blanket around the quivering form of the girl. She bowed once to the retreating figure and took the child into the house. The girl fell into bed and knew no more that night. The woman stared into the darkness, tears streaming down her cheeks. Within the hour agreed upon, the figure returned to that forsaken hilltop. His light was dimmed to the slight flickering of a dying candle. He stood before the men with a drooping head but a righteous fire blazed in his eyes. The king laughed him to scorn, drew his blade, and approached the apparently cowed creature. Steel flickered in the light as the blade struck home. The light dimmed and went out. As if from a vast distance, a great wailing cry rent the night, as if the earth itself had been mortally wounded by the blow. A wind came howling out of the west and clouds blotted out the sky. Darkness engulfed the world, lightning flashed in the heavens, and thunder rolled as if all creation reared up in fury at the atrocity that had occurred. The hill itself began to roll like a wave on the sea and split in two. The men were thrown from their feet and retreated in confusion and fear from the horror before them. Their horses reared and snorted, broke loose, and disappeared into the storm.

“What have you done!” roared one general over the wind. “

I have loosed the wrath of the heavens,” screamed the king. A panic spread among them and all fled into the darkness.

 

The next morning, the girl rode up the accursed hill hoping to find some trace of her rescuer. She found the vile blade broken in two, but no sign of the mysterious glowing figure. She dismounted and peered with dismay into the gaping chasm that had once been the heart of the hill. “What is it you seek?” asked a voice behind her.

With a shriek of pure joy she flung her arms around the figure that now stood at her shoulder, glowing like the sun. “You are alive!” she said.

“Yes,” said he simply.

“But what of last night?” asked she, “I was sure you had been slain. What of that horrible shriek and the dreadful darkness?”

“My life cannot be taken against my will. Before anything ever was and after all has passed into nothing, I was and ever will be. I laid down my life not only for you, but for all things that would have been utterly destroyed by the acts of last night. Your blood would have strengthened that foul demon beyond anything he has yet achieved. My blood offered willing in exchange for another’s broke his power. What began in selfishness and evil, ended in selflessness and love, which alone has power to conquer the darkness. He has been vanquished but not destroyed. He still lurks in the world, full of malice and hate and ready to assist any who give themselves over to a lust for power and destruction. Until last night, mankind had lived in peace and harmony with one another and with all creation, but that peace has been shattered. Man has shown himself vulnerable to evil, willing to place himself above all else, even his own children. It is no longer safe to assume that all men are good in and of themselves. Each individual must hereafter make a decision to follow what is right and good, or to follow his own selfish path into evil and darkness. From the dawn of mankind, it was given into your hands to decide whether to pursue goodness or darkness. A member of your race has chosen the ultimate evil and with his fall, all are now required to make a decision that once came naturally to all.”

The girl fell sobbing at his feet, feeling in herself the dreadful truth she had just heard spoken. It was as if something inside her had been torn or ripped away and she was left with a gaping hole, much like the defiled face of the hill. Looking up into his eyes, she said, “I have lost something within myself. I am no longer whole. I have a longing, a desire for something. Something, though I know not what. Something greater than myself.”

“Yes,” said he, “your whole race now shares that same longing. And with what you fill that hole will determine the course of your life, and the lives of all those around you, from now and ever onwards. Choose carefully.”

“Can I choose you?” she asked hesitantly.

A smile crept over his face and the whole hillside seemed to laugh with joy. “Of course,” he said. “After last night, the world is hurting and needs to be told these things which you have just heard. I need someone to go forth and tell them. Bring your horse forward.”

The girl ran over to the horse which had strayed and was happily nibbling at weeds upon the far side of the hill. She led the beast towards the figure. The stallion pulled back against the reins and nearly reared, trying to avoid the glowing figure before him. “Do not be afraid my simple beast,” said the figure, “from now and ever onwards, you and your descendants will no longer be considered simple.” The figure turned his side towards the girl and for the first time she saw the gaping wound in his side. From it dribbled a steady stream of silver blood. She gasped in horror and drew back. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “this is the price of last night’s adventure. Though much was lost, much good also came of it. Take a drop of my blood on your finger and place it on the horse’s tongue.” Hesitantly the girl complied. Almost reverently she poked a finger into the sliver stream and placed a drop of the precious fluid into the horse’s mouth.

An indignant snort was followed by a blinding flash. She no longer held a horse by the reins but a unicorn. The sorrel coat had become white as the snow; wisdom and fire were in his once placid and simple eyes. Cloven hooves of silver had replaced his single hooves of grey. A silver horn protruded proudly from his forehead. He shook his head in disgust a few times and looked with dismay at the girl and the glowing figure.

“Remove his bit,” laughed the figure. The girl complied and the unicorn seemed much happier. “Now it is your turn,” said he. The girl looked with shock and disgust at the gaping hole in the figure’s side and turned pleading eyes to his. “If you really wish to serve me, you must taste of my blood,” he said, “by doing so you are binding yourself to me and my purposes. You will gain much in wisdom and abilities but in doing so you are also swearing to serve me, even with the forfeit of your life be it necessary. Do you wish to proceed?”

She nodded and did as she was bidden. She seemed to grow taller and a thirst for knowledge grew within her. A deeper understanding of things once hidden to mortal mind blossomed in her heart. She had changed as much as the horse.

“Now,” said the figure,” I will tell you of things long hidden to the race of men, things vital to your quest. The demon of war, to whom your father nearly sacrificed you, was once my greatest servant. But he desired things beyond his grasp and made an attempt to supplant me as The Master of All. He was banished from my presence and ever since has made war upon all that is good and wonderful. He has claimed lordship over all creation and still yearns for the power he cannot have. Until last night, he had made little progress in his war against me, but last night there came a breaking. Men, who had once lived in peace, have heeded his call and some have broken away from me seeking the power promised by their new master. Now all must decide whether to follow him or me. None can sit this out. By stepping aside, they are simply declaring themselves for him, if only by doing nothing. This is war a war that has raged since before the world began, there can be no civilians. He will devour everything if all stand aside and let him. I will only do so much. I am Master of all things, but I have given all sapient creatures a choice, and upon that freedom I will not trespass. They must choose what is right or what is evil. I will not infringe upon their decisions for good or ill. If they choose the right, I can assist them, but if they choose the evil I can only stand aside and weep for their ill choices and dire fate. That is why I could not interfere directly in the affairs of last night. It is up to you, and those like you: my servants, to pursue evil in whatever form or guise it takes and do what you must to defeat it and to defend the innocent. You must spread word of this through all lands and to all peoples. It will not be easy and there will be great heartache along the way but you will never be alone; it must be done or evil will consume the world and all within it. Last night a deadly blow was dealt to my enemy, but he is still lurking about and still very powerful. In the end, he will be completely vanquished but until that final day, you are all that stands between the world and devastation. A rent has been created in the hearts of men. They will yearn for me and try to fill the gap with all sorts of vain things. You must tell them the truth of what you have seen. Last night, the innocence of man was lost, but by my blood it can be healed.”

The girl had been held spellbound by the tale. The light around the figure dimmed a little, just enough so that she could make out his full form. She had glimpsed a horse-like figure last night and this morning, but now saw him fully, as if a fog had lifted. He was similar to the unicorn standing at her shoulder, but taller and more terrible; his horn and hooves were of gold and he glowed with the very light of the sun.

“Your faithful steed will be the father of the race of mortal unicorns and you shall be the first among a great and future throng of my servants. I will hereafter withdraw from wandering abroad in the world but I will be found by those who seek me. Go forth and teach what you have been taught, fight evil, and protect the innocent.” With that he seemed to glow brighter and as the sun topped the head of the hill, vanished into the blinding rays.

 

Sample Chapters of ‘Shadow of the Unicorn,’ the first in the ‘In Shadow,’ series:

 

1

 

Jace stood upon the battlements, staring, though unseeing, out upon the bleak grey landscape of the failing year ere snow covered and softened the weary land for its winter repose. Leaden clouds lowered ominously on the horizon while a mournful wind moaned pitiably in the half completed towers of the grotesque fortress; the river passed sullenly by without comment, preoccupied with its looming icy imprisonment. Though only partially complete, the grim fortress was already falling to ruin, as were the souls who lingered therein. The place was hardly cheerful, even upon a bright morning of spring, and was at its most dismal ere the first snows of winter, but it was not the weather that brought the boy out to pace the battlements upon such a dreary day, rather he had much to contemplate and none of it good. His patched cloak flapped wildly in the wind but he little noticed, for his thoughts were just as unruly. His grandfather, a nobleman displaced by war, had laid the foundations of this ruin and his father had further built up the fortress after its founder’s untimely death, but the family fortune had run out long before the project was finished, so it moldered in half-completed splendor while its occupants dwelt ever in the shadow of poverty and isolation, and now it seemed, madness as well.

Jace’s father was but a boy when war forced the family to flee with what they could salvage of their wealth. The patriarch was determined to start anew in a strange land, much to the dismay of the locals, but they were a rather peaceful folk and he began his project without asking their permission, and as they were notorious for their willingness to forgive, the project continued despite their misgivings. But tragedy struck the third winter the family spent in their new home, for both of Jace’s grandparents died of pneumonia within a fortnight of one another, leaving their son, still very much a boy, alone in the grim fortress with only a few faithful servants and guards that had accompanied the family in its flight, for they trusted no one in this strange land, least of all those of common descent. But the boy was not crushed by his loss, but rather was as determined, perhaps more so, than his father to finish the project and become a veritable lord in this strange land, the protests of the original inhabitants aside.

Construction continued slowly as the boy grew to manhood and the family fortune dwindled, but surely the son of a nobleman might make a proper match and thereby reinvigorate his fortune as well as perpetuate his line. So it was that Jace’s father went a-courting and soon came home with his beautiful and captivating bride, the very picture of a wealthy lady, but only a picture, for though of noble blood, her family was as destitute as that of her new husband, though neither had thought to broach the subject before their marriage, assuming the other was indeed as rich as they portrayed themselves to be. The truth came out very soon after Jace was born; the ensuing fight was the stuff of legend, at least if you believe the tales told in after years by the aging servants, but in the end, the lady fled, leaving her infant son and husband to fend for themselves. The man looked coldly upon the boy, who was so like his mother in form and feature that he could not help but despise him. He turned his back on the child, stared stonily at the open door out which his wife had fled, and then withdrew to his own chambers. Had one of the few remaining servants not taken pity upon the poor creature, he likely would not have survived infancy.

The man seemed indifferent to the fate of his son, pretending that he did not even exist and focusing all his time, thought, and energy on his project instead, but there was no money to pay workmen or buy stone and timber, so the man had to do everything himself. Only two servants remained of the few that had fled with the family, lingering on out of faithfulness and because they had nowhere else to go, for their lord had long since ceased to pay them. The old housekeeper did the cooking, looked after the domestic side of things, and was the only mother the boy ever knew. The other was an aging guardsman who had taken on the duties of butler, valet, and jack-of-all-trades; it was he that taught the boy what little he knew of reading and more importantly, to his mind at least, the sword. The rest of the lad’s education was left to what he could glean from the few books that lay forgotten around the fortress and what the housekeeper could impart in the form of old stories as she wandered about the keep seeing to her myriad duties.

As the boy neared manhood, at last his father took a modicum of interest in him, but whether it was due to some newly realized desire for kith and kin in his fading years or because his rheumatism forced him to abandon his fortress building activities, none knew. But one day the master of the ruin summoned the lad into his chambers, where he sat in relative splendor in a fraying robe with a moth-eaten velvet chair for a throne. Upon the lad’s entrance, the man studied him as he might a horse he had a mind to buy. After several minutes of dreadful silence, the man said at last, “what do they call you boy?”

The lad blinked in surprise that his father did not even know his name, but his servile foster parents had taught him courtesy, if little else, said he with a proper bow, “I am called Jace, sir.”

The man nodded as if it were of no matter and continued, “very well boy, they say you are my son, a claim I cannot verify yet neither can I fully deny it. In either case, it is high time you started to earn your keep around here. My father had a vision that this castle would one day tower over the surrounding countryside and herein would his descendants be safe from war, plague, and the like, nevermore to be driven like refugees from that which was rightfully our own. This is all my purpose and destiny and it shall be yours, whether you like it or not. You will take up where I have left off: cutting timber, collecting stone, using it to finish what my father began, well?”

The boy gaped, was this to be all his future? A slave to another man’s futile dream?

The man shook his head sadly, “I see you are not a man of vision, like unto mine, a pity, for I think it proves that you are not my son after all. I will give you the afternoon to ponder your future, either submit yourself to my father’s dream and fulfill your true purpose in this life or get you gone from here, never to return.” The boy gave a perfect bow and vanished from the room, fleeing to the battlements to mull over his future, whatever it might be.

Night was falling and still he had found no sensible reply for the grim man waiting impatiently in his chambers below, prematurely aged by labor, sorrow, and unrestrained ambition. Jace glanced uneasily out upon the darkening world, could he truly find a life out there in the world that had forsaken his family, from whose stock had sprung his faithless mother? Yet he knew he could not remain forever a slave to his grandfather’s dream as his father had ever been. What was he to do? Where was he to go? The outside world terrified him, but could he live on for countless years in futile toil? He wanted to scream or weep and came very close to doing both, but his reeling thoughts were interrupted by a stooping ghost that loomed out of the darkness before him.

Came the gruff but concerned voice of the guardsman, “what troubles thee lad? The master sent me to find ye, he is impatient for yer answer.”

The boy glanced silently out into the darkness and the man nodded in grave understanding, “aye, it is a hard choice, but no choice at all I think. This cursed place has consumed two generations of yer family lad, don’t be a fool and make it three. Whatever horrors lay without, they can be nothing to what lurks herein.”

The boy nodded his silent thanks and then went to find his father, knowing the man had spoken truly. He knocked timidly upon the door and entered upon the gruff command to do so. He found his father standing before the hearth, staring into the flames, his hands clasped at his back; he did not turn around or even look at the boy, said he, “a harlot’s son, through and through, cannot even stay on to succor an aging wreck of a man in his failing years, the selfish, selfish wretch.” Suddenly the man turned, his anger giving him strength and speed that years of hard labor had stolen, he took up an iron poker that lay to hand and his eyes seemed to blaze with the light of the fire at his back, snarled he, hefting the poker aloft, “Out! Out! Get out, you insolent oaf!”

The boy knew the man was in earnest and half out of his mind besides, lingering not a moment longer, he turned and fled the chamber and hied himself that moment from the crumbling keep. The housekeeper and guardsman watched him flee with sad eyes, shook their heads in dismay, but had known for many a year that there could be no other end to the tale, but at least this wretched fortress would not utterly consume the boy as it had his forbears, what the outside world might do to him was another matter entirely.

Jace fled with only the clothes on his back, packing was of little matter as he was currently wearing everything he possessed. His only thought was to escape the broken dreams and empty years that lay behind with no concern for what the morrow might hold, for he knew nothing of purpose, joy, peace, hope, or comfort. His world was as cold and lonely as the fortress he had just fled. A miserable drizzle began to fall not long after his flight, forcing him to seek what shelter he could beneath a clump of spruce trees that seemed to huddle together for comfort amid the cold, wet dark. Every fiber of Jace’s being cried out to do the same, but one cannot comfortably cuddle with a conifer so there was nothing left to be done but cry himself to sleep.

A wan shaft of sunlight filtered down through the clouds and pierced the fastness of the boy’s retreat, bringing him blinkingly awake. He sighed heavily as he gained his feet, seeing no reason to go on save that he was too anxious and grieved of heart to sit still. So off he went into the dawning, grateful that the rain had stopped and that he could now see whither he fled. Which got him to wondering where exactly he was to go. He knew nothing of the outside world, save for forays with the guardsman into the surrounding forest to collect wood or to hunt. He had never even seen a farmer’s cot, let alone a village. He had heard the housekeeper mention a city once, a concept he could not quite comprehend, but he was not sure he wanted to venture thither, for she had spoken of it in hushed tones one night with the guardsman as they sat before the kitchen fire, certain the lad was abed and not hiding in the doorway, listening in horrified fascination as she described the demon-worshippers that dwelt therein and the horrid practices with which they maintained their uncanny powers.

He smiled grimly to himself, pondering what was best to be done, as his feet followed a game trail seemingly of their own accord, so little did he notice or care whither his path led. He could wander out into the wilderness and undoubtedly die of exposure or starvation during the coming winter or he could find this city and see if the housekeeper’s awful tales were even half true. It might be death either way, but at least he could discover what a city was ere the end. With this grim acceptance, did he suddenly step out of the surrounding woods and look upon a great swath of cultivated land, dotted with farmhouses and well-tended copses, and in the distance loomed the infamous city. He had inherited a little of his father’s ambition, so with a grim smile pasted on his face did he set out in quest of what could only be his doom.

His smile became incongruous as his journey progressed in a rather anticlimactic fashion, for though he had prepared himself for sights grim and terrible, the countryside was rather picturesque and the few folk he observed in passing seemed as sensible and down-to-earth as either the guardsman or the housekeeper. He consoled himself with the thought that of course the commonfolk would be of similar disposition to the menials with which he was acquainted, it was only their fell masters that would be workers of such foul magicks. He hastened his steps to discover this inevitability for himself but was again sorely disappointed. He soon found himself in a veritable flood of humanity headed for the city to conduct the day’s business. People at first trickled in from the outlying farms and villages but soon converged upon the main road leading into the city.

Jace gazed about him in wonder, never having imagined there could be so many people upon the face of the earth, let alone upon one certain stretch of road. The houses and shops that began to line the way were also strange to his eyes and he goggled like the yokel he was; some of the more world-weary passersby about him smiled in welcome amusement at the lad’s befuddlement, for a moment remembering their own forgotten youth. A veritable city had grown up around the walls of the original settlement and many of Jace’s fellow travelers vanished into the labyrinthine streets and alleys upon their own errands, but most continued on through the gates, few even glancing at the guards who stood silent watch at the gates and upon the walls, but the boy froze in fascinated terror. His sudden halt brought a few complaints and jostles from those nearest him, but they shoved around him and continued on their way, some giving him a meaningful glare but most shaking their heads in vast amusement.

So too did those fell warriors eye the boy with smiles that never broke the stony facade of their faces. But as more and more people pushed by the lad and entered the gates unscathed, he drew a deep breath and pressed ever onwards into the heart of a city inhabited by sorcerers and worse, though strangely, none of the folk about him seemed overly concerned about their impending doom. He was drawn inexorably to the center of the city where a great castle towered over everything. For a long time he stood as one transfixed, staring up and up and up at the edifice that soared above him. A rueful smile split his lips, for even had he and his descendants ten generations hence worked ceaselessly, never could they hope to make anything like this of that horrid fortress. And thence lay his doom. At last, he gathered his courage and set forth upon the last leg of his final journey, thinking it quite a heroic effort on his part and not a little disappointed that there was not a bard or poet at hand to record the tale. Most of his erstwhile companions had vanished long ago into the city proper and left the bumpkin to stare as he would. So it was that he came to the castle gates and found himself very much alone with a whole host of those grim faced guards just waiting to make a gory end of him. Where was a poet when you needed one?

He stood awkwardly out of the way, studying those who guarded the gates and those who came and went upon their own errands, not finding anything too sinister in any of it. Again rather disappointed, the lad at last made his own approach, knowing his courage was hanging by a thread. His first attempt at speaking failed dismally with the guard looking at him in perplexity and what might, to Jace’s horrified mind, be pity!

But the guard saved him from further embarrassment and possible flight by asking, “what can I do for you lad?” He actually smiled, “you need not be so terrified, you are quite safe within the confines of Astoria.”

The boy blinked in utter astonishment, could this fearsome warrior truly be speaking to him, and with kindness? Demon-worshippers indeed! Said he at last, a quaver in his voice, “I am in desperate straits, sir, but well know that there is little hope for one such as I in this cold, indifferent world.”

The guard nodded in understanding and said gently, “aye lad, many come hither with just such a tale, but take heart, for we shall do all we can to remedy your plight, whatever it be.” Jace looked near to fainting with hunger and astonishment, as the man motioned for a servant standing within the courtyard to take charge of the flummoxed lad and see to his comfort. The servant smiled in amusement, having done the same a thousand times before, and easily guided the gaping boy into the castle proper, leaving the guard to speak with the next person awaiting his attention.

At last Jace collected his wits enough to comprehend what the servant was saying, “the morning meal has just finished, but I can bring you something once you are settled.” He studied the lad’s ragged attire that was more patches than original cloth and smiled wryly, “and I’ll see to your wardrobe as well. Have you come to study then?”

Jace froze and studied the man as if he had asked if his father were a toad, said he in astonishment, “study? You must know I could little afford such a luxury!”

The servant grinned, “I suppose it is priceless at that, but come lad, anyone is free to study in Astoria and all the Lady asks is that you abide by her rules whilst you reside in the city.”

The boy gaped anew, but a smile danced in his eyes, said he with an incredulous grin, “then I will certainly take you up on that offer, sir.” The servant nodded as if it were simple sense and they continued on their way.

He stopped before a door at the end of a long corridor and said, “you can sleep here for now, this room is currently unoccupied but if you stay very long, you will undoubtedly find yourself with roommates rather soon. I’ll see about finding you something to eat and some appropriate attire.” He smiled broadly as he turned to go, “welcome to Astoria!”

The boy stared wistfully after the retreating form for a moment and then curiously opened the door and entered the room. Glancing about at the small but comfortable chamber, he laughed aloud and said, “demon worshippers indeed!”

“How dreadful!” came a startled and unfamiliar voice.

Jace turned around in surprise to find a girl about his own age, or at least so he assumed, not having much experience in such matters, peeping round the door, a broom forgotten in one hand. She squeaked in dismay, “forgive me, I was just sweeping the hall when I heard your outburst and just had to investigate.” She blushed crimson at her own unseemly outburst and though she colored further, pressed on, “can you tell me more about these demon worshippers?”

Jace was not sure whether he was more startled, annoyed, or amused by this perplexing creature, but said as calmly as he could, “I haven’t much to tell, for I was only laughing at the incongruity of this place with a description I once heard of it. The old woman was convinced this place was naught but a den of such villains, but I have yet to find them, should they exist.”

Briane laughed excitedly, clasping her hands like a little girl, “oh, you will have to look long and hard to find such in Astoria. I have been here all my life and have never heard of such goings on.”

Jace smiled wryly at his previous eagerness, “so there isn’t anyone in Astoria possessed of uncanny abilities as my unenlightened source assumed?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” came the voice of the returning servant. He gave the girl a patient look, “have you not things to be about?” She squeaked again, dropped a curtsy, and disappeared round the corner with a death grip on her broom. The servant shook his head and smiled ruefully, “the silly girl spends more time eavesdropping than attending to her chores; more curiosity than a cat, has that one.”

Jace was gaping again, but the servant ignored him and thrust a pile of clothes and a tray of food into his hands, saying as he did so, “as promised, here is your breakfast and a change of clothes. If you hurry, you can just make it to the next class session. You’ll have an official schedule soon, but until then you had best tag alone with some of the other Students.” He smiled impishly, “and as to your unasked question, you’ll soon discover the answers for yourself if you pay attention in class.” He nodded at the boy and vanished about his interrupted errands.

Jace shook himself, frowned in consternation at the servant’s retreating back, and then hastily changed his clothes and wolfed down the food, both from hunger and eager to begin his education. Only then did he realize he was alone in an unfamiliar castle with no idea where to find said classes. He shrugged, smiled as his audacity reared its head once more, and dashed down the hall in search of a class or an adventure, whichever came first.

He nearly collided with a pair of slightly older boys as he came careening around the corner, determined not to be late. Suddenly ill at ease, Jace muttered his apologies and stared at his feet. One of the older lads must have heard, ‘new here,’ amongst Jace’s mumbling for he cheerily replied, “don’t worry about it! Come with us and we’ll help you get settled.”

The boy stared up in astonishment, gaping yet again, stuttered he, “how can this be? How can you be bothered with helping me? I don’t understand?”

The older pair exchanged a grin, then Adan, the lad who had spoken, clapped the younger boy on the back and smiled, “it seems you have much to learn about life in Astoria. Wherever you came from, it must have been a rough life. But come, else we’ll be late.” Jace smiled at his reassuring words and then blanched in near panic at the thought of being the cause of their tardiness. The older pair shook their heads in amusement but all three hastened off to class.

Jace remembered little of that first lesson, so overwhelmed was he with all that had happened in the last day and all the novel sights and experiences he had taken in. His erstwhile guides were assigned chores in the stable the following hour, which allowed the overwrought Jace some much needed time to sit and think while his companions shoveled muck. The midday meal offered another course of novelty and wonder to Jace’s abused sensibilities, never in his life had he been amidst so many people, and most astonishingly of all, though complete strangers, they actually seemed to care about him. Another round of classes was set for the afternoon, but Jace felt he needed some time alone to sort everything out, and perhaps even a nap after his difficult night. He goggled, less than a full day had passed since his father had cast him out, alone in the night. Adan nodded his understanding and showed him back to the corridor that housed his room, and though he valiantly intended to contemplate upon all that had happened, he fell promptly and soundly asleep.

 

 

2

 

A ruckus in the hall wakened the boy as the eager Students returned to their rooms after their last class before going to the evening meal. Jace glanced blearily about, wondering for a moment where he was, but suddenly realization dawned and a great smile lit his face. He had come home at last. He adjusted his rumpled clothing, grateful it was not too wrinkled from his nap and ran a hand through his hair, it would do, then dashed excitedly from the room, again nearly colliding with Adan, who smiled roguishly at the boy and hoped such behavior was not becoming a habit. Said the elder lad with a grin, “it is good to see you so refreshed, you looked rather stunned when we parted and I know you learned nothing in class today, but it seems there is hope for you yet.”

Jace smiled ruefully, “it has been quite a day.” He glanced hopefully in the direction of the dining hall, even after so short a stay he had become very much accustomed to being fed regularly and well, which was an unlikely occurrence in his former life, said he, “and I’d be happy to tell you all the tale over the evening meal, that is if you care to hear it.”

Adan laughed outright, “aye, it must be quite a story indeed, but fear not, there shall be plenty of food to go around.”

Jace colored and began studying his boots, abashed that his greatest desire at the moment was so blatantly obvious. Adan glanced at said boots as well and frowned, “but first we had best stop by the supply room and find you a decent pair of boots.”

Jace looked up suddenly in surprise, would the miracles in this place never cease? He had never owned a decent pair of boots, this particular pair had been worn by his father when he fled his homeland, ages ago! Adan smiled warmly at the look of grateful astonishment in the lad’s eyes and led the way, eager to see the wish fulfilled. The servant in charge of the supply room at that hour took one look at the antique footwear, turned away with a disgusted groan, and vanished into the storage area, reappearing with a worn, but quite serviceable pair of boots that actually fit the agape lad. Rather pleased with himself, the servant smiled smugly and reluctantly took the ancient boots in exchange, his countenance taking on an unruly expression as he did so, their fate remains a mystery to this day but judging from his face, it was not a pleasant one.

As they walked to the dining hall, Jace remarked with an awe tinged voice, “I have never encountered such generosity, not even from my own folk!”

Adan shook his head, his eyes sparkling, “you’ve seen nothing yet, all we’ve done this day is see you properly clothed and fed.”

Jace froze mid-step and faced his companion, “there’s more?!”

Adan clapped him on the shoulder and smiled, “aye, more than you can begin to imagine.” They continued on, Jace speechless in incomprehension.

As they sat at table, finishing their food, Jace told his tale, much to the horror and astonishment of Adan and his friends who had joined them for supper. No wonder the boy was so grateful for the least bit of kindness or attention! Adan said at last, “so that is the tale behind that ugly heap of rocks up river? Long have we theorized amongst ourselves about who or what had built it, or rather begun it, and why. It is a grim enough story in its own right.” He smiled ruefully, “though nowhere near as horrific as some of the tales we’ve birthed.”

The others shared a wry laugh and eyed their companion with both pity and wonder, Jace awkwardly studied his peas, uneasy being the focus of such attention. Adan continued, more to distract his companions away from their study of the abashed boy than for anything else, “well, this is the place to start over or start anew, if that is your wish. Any idea what you want to do with your life?”

Jace could not restrain his laugh, “it was but a day ago my father cast me out and I encountered true human society for the first time in my life, let alone human kindness. Must I already know the course of my future?”

The others joined in his mirth, forgetting how high were the expectations of their hosts and thus, inadvertently perhaps, their own. Once the laughter had subsided, Jace asked a bit timidly, still uneasy speaking his mind amongst so many strangers, “what is this place? Who founded it? How can they afford to support so many ragamuffin students with no expectation of remuneration? Is there some hidden agenda or trap, for it seems too good to be true?”

Adan smiled, “rest easy my friend, there is nothing sinister or hidden here. You may stay as long as you wish and leave likewise. The only requirement is that you do your best, be respectful of others, and follow the rules as best you can. According to legend, Astoria was founded centuries ago, near the very Beginning. The country is self-sufficient and quite prosperous in its own right, but is also supported by various Kings, Lords, and wealthy benefactors who believe in its mission or have benefited from its services themselves. They have been educating all comers since its foundations were laid.”

Jace nodded thoughtfully, “a noble cause I suppose, but who founded it and why? My experience of the world is limited, but I do not see blind philanthropy as a common trait amongst men, someone must have had a reason.”

Adan studied his companion thoughtfully, trying to gage his reaction to what was to come, said he at last, “you will learn far more in your initial classes, but the simple answer is: the Master Himself provided for the city’s founding as a home for the Brethren and those they serve.”

Jace blinked, not having imagined the so far sensible Adan to be one who believed in fairy tales, said he in consternation, “that is what the legends say?”

Adan grinned, “you are a skeptic then?”

Jace shrugged somewhat sheepishly, though he was not the one who seriously thought myth had once walked about under sun and star, “I suppose, though I know little enough of the subject, and of all else for that matter, that I should withhold judgment until I am certain.”

Adan nodded, “fair enough, but don’t worry, there is no requirement to believe a certain way to study here. Even if you hold it all to be a tall tale, there is still more wisdom to be garnered here than you’ll be able to absorb in a lifetime.”

Jace smiled in relief, “that is good to know.” He frowned thoughtfully, “I met a servant earlier who made a rather cryptic comment about certain individuals around this place having uncanny abilities, but he said I would have to wait for my classes to answer my questions in that regard. Our old housekeeper was convinced the city was inhabited by demon-worshippers, a claim I am certain is wrong, but what is the truth about this place and its denizens?”

Adan smiled in amusement at the servant’s evasiveness, he was pretty certain who it was the lad had met, but he said, “the Brethren are purported to have certain gifts given to them in their service to the Master, you will learn far more in days to come if you want specifics, but there is nothing evil in the mix. Uncanny yes, miraculous certainly, but not demonic.” He smiled impishly, “how is it you can believe in demons but not the Master?”

Jace frowned at the thought and then smiled ironically, “that is an incongruous thought! But then, I am not sure I believe in demons either, it was just something I overheard and never gave much serious thought until I was bound hither in the dark, alone, after being cast out from all I ever knew. I guess the imagination is prone to embracing the grim and frightening with far less reluctance, especially under such circumstances, than the rational mind is in accepting the supernatural in far more congenial surroundings.”

Adan smiled broadly, “my friend, you have come to the right place, for yours is a mind quick and ready to absorb all available wisdom and knowledge, and here you will undoubtedly find ample fodder for thought.”

They continued their conversation upon more general topics, for which Jace was thankful, little liking being the center of attention when he was so little used to it; so absorbed was he in all that was said that he did not notice Briane sitting on the edge of the group, studying him with sparkling eyes and a knowing half-smile upon her lips.

Adan saw him back to his quarters after the meal, for even with his nap, Jace was exhausted though sorely disappointed not to be able to participate in the games and conversations held amongst the students that evening, but such was the ritual every night, so he consoled himself with the thought that there was always tomorrow and many days thereafter. Yawning, he bid goodnight to his companion, and was soon asleep.

 

 

 

Sample Story from ‘Over the Hills and Far Away:’

 

Over the hills and far away,’

thither lies the land of Fey,

Of wandering brook and woodland glade,

Golden meads and dappled shade.

 

Where evening star is guide and stay

And in the vales, mist doth play.

Dryad, pixie, gnome dwell there,

Griffons lurk and dragons lair.

 

Songs of old live on there still,

Legend treads on plain and hill.

Beasts that talk and trees that sing,

The poor be rich, a peasant King.

 

If that land, you would gain,

Take a child in your train,

Let him lead you by the hand,

And you will reach that far, fair land.

 

Over the Hills and Far Away

 

 

 

 

Up the airy mountains,

Down the rushy glen,

We daren’t go a-hunting

For fear of little men;

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

And white owl’s feather!

William Allingham, ‘The Fairies’

 

 

For Fear of Little Men

 

Beatrice was missing, and none were fain to seek her, save her little brother, Tibbin, but could a mere child go where grown men feared to tread? Perhaps only a little child could. She had strayed up into the hills after her father’s missing sheep and none had seen her for a full three days. No one ventured into those hills, for they were known to be haunted by all manner of folk, strange and fey, and it was folly for mortals to tread thereupon. No, the girl was lost, spirited away or bewitched by some fell being, never more to be seen by mortal men under sun and star, at least not in any natural form; her family might as well accept the truth, embrace their loss, and move on with their lives, or so whispered the villagefolk. But Tibbin was not content to lose his sister thus, but loath were his parents to part with their remaining child, so did he make for those forbidden hills without their knowing or leave, save for a brief note of farewell, imparting his fate. Aghast, his parents asked of their friends and neighbors if any were willing to go after. They merely shook their heads and muttered darkly amongst themselves, who would risk their lives when the boy willingly chose his doom? It was not to be helped. The aggrieved couple went home to wait, perhaps vainly, for news of what had come of their children.

Tibbin was a child but he was not a fool, he was young but also sensible. His elders all feared the fairyfolk, mostly because they did not understand them, albeit they had little interaction with that mysterious kindred and only a few old tales, likely flawed, to rely upon for information pertaining thereunto, but they were also small-minded and superstitious, little liking anything outside their ken, which was pretty much anything and everything outside the confines of their secluded village. Tibbin was still young enough to be untainted by their blindness and prejudice; for his were the wide, unguarded eyes of childhood that saw things as they were rather than as the viewer thought them to be. He was a little leery of the fey folk, as all creatures are of the unknown, but he was not paralyzed or handicapped by unmerited terror as his elders were. Thus did he hie himself into those mysterious hills, the only hope for his sister. He took with him enough bread, cheese, and water to last him a week of hard scrabbling over rocky ground, hoping it would be enough. He took no weapons, save a little knife, which was tool rather than implement of death. With his meager rations and a stout, faithful heart did he set out upon quest great and daring.

He left at twilight when his parents thought him abed, creeping carefully out of the house and into the brushy waste behind, clambering over stones and thorny scrub by the light of a slivered moon and a few bright stars. He went as far as he could in the wan light, at least far enough that pursuit would not follow, and then laid himself down under a gorse bush to find what rest he could. An impertinent bird started trilling in said bush at an unearthly hour, wakening the stiff, cold hero into a misty world of gold and rose. He smiled despite his discomfort and drank in the beauty about him, like a connoisseur a rare and delicate wine. He stretched, breakfasted, and was soon off into the mysterious otherworldliness of dawn, feeling that his adventure was well and truly begun. His sister surely waited around the next bend in the path or just over the hill. He whistled as airily as the bird as he set forth.

His sister was not over the next hill, but a short, stocky man with a prodigious beard sat upon a stone in the thinning mist, smoking his pipe. Asked the boy of the stoic figure, “have you perchance seen or heard of a young girl roaming these hills within the last sevennight, good sir?”

The dwarfish gentleman smiled broadly at the lad’s boldness, withdrew his pipe, and exhaled thoughtfully, “aye lad, aye. Not a rabbit goes through these hills without my knowing it. How is it you have the courage to come when none of your elders would bestir themselves?”

Said the boy with a shrug, “none would come, so there was only me. Please sir, have you seen my sister?”

The man nodded sagely, “she’s taken up with a few of the pixies that haunt meadow and lea, dangerous consorts for a mortal lass.”

The boy paled, “have they harmed her or is she in great peril?”

The dwarf laughed, “aye and nay, lad, aye and nay! Those fairies are as feckless and giddy as any lass your sister’s age, but they never grow up or wiser, and neither do they age nor die. They will not hurt a mayfly or aught else, but rather delight in all that is pretty and ephemeral: flowers, butterflies, robin’s eggs, and the like. They have no use or comprehension of the greater, eternal things but are like a brook’s laugh or a dancing little wind in their seriousness and wisdom. The danger lies in the fact Time and Death mean nothing to them. Your sister, if she is not careful, may get so caught up in their whimsical nonsense that she forgets such things herself and by the time she remembers them, may find herself a very old lady with naught of life left to her. It is a tricky thing when mortals think to involve themselves in matters beyond their ken and natural sphere. Your kind is made for eternity, but must enter it through the proper door, not try to sneak in the window.”

The boy was silent for a long while as he contemplated the little man’s words, and finally said, “can I draw her back?”

The man nodded, “aye lad, if she will come, but she may be so entranced with the merriment and giddiness of her companions that she will yearn to stay. If she will not go of her own will, no power on earth or beyond it will move her. Take heed to yourself, that you not find yourself also caught up in things beyond your natural sphere. Someday perhaps, such or rather far greater shall be your lot, but do not be tempted into seizing it ere it is time for only trouble will come of it.” The boy heartily thanked the old man and hastened in the direction he was bidden. The dwarf watched after and wondered what would come of the lad and his sister, silently shaking his head at the recklessness and abandon of those silly pixies and the inadvertent havoc it could wreak upon a mortal creature.

Tibbin had not gone far when he spied a rather curious creature crouching in the shade of a great oak. It appeared to be a lad his own age, but his full height would only reach his father’s knee; he was light of build, eye, and hair and his ears were slightly tapered. He winked at the staring boy, motioned eagerly for the lad to follow, and vanished into the hedge of roses at the base of the tree. Tibbin took two happy steps after the fairy creature but then froze, his quest was his sister, not to be caught up in a fate like unto hers. He sighed heavily but turned staunchly back upon his original path and intent. The little creature watched after, for a moment a little disappointed, but then some other amusement soon caught his attention and his lost companion was immediately forgotten.

By the time the sun was on its downward journey, Tibbin had come to the little meadow wherein the dwarf said his sister and her merry companions might be found on occasion. He settled down in a thicket of young birches to await their coming. Neither was the wait to be tedious, dull, or lonely. The world, in itself, was young, spry, pleasant, and full of the wonders of spring, but those hills were haunted by all manner of folk and creature unknown to the children of men, and in this varied parade, Tibbin found endless marvel and interest. Most ignored him, some were openly scornful, and a few asked him to follow in their merry wake, but ever he sat and awaited the coming of Beatrice and her fairy companions. So did he wait for three full days, eating from his scant provisions and refreshing himself in the ever singing brook by which he sat, finally on a night of mist and moon and starlight, five bright figures came laughing and dancing into the water meadow, Beatrice as radiant and blithe as her companions.

Tibbin rose from his place with a joyous shout and for a moment the pixies quivered like frightened birds, but soon they arrayed themselves about him in a merry dance of welcome and curiosity. Beatrice at first did not know him, but as his song joined in their lilting chorus, his well loved voice broke the thrall about her and she joyously left her place in the circle and flew into her brother’s arms with tears of unspeakable longing and delight. The piping and cavorting of the fairies increased tenfold at such mirth and delightedly did they share therein, but soon they tired of the newcomer and were rather perplexed and no little troubled by the strange sobbing that now wracked their once gay companion. For nothing did they know of sorrow or death. With a merry call, did they bid Beatrice to flit off with them anew, careless once more, but she smiled sadly, wiped a mysterious moisture from her eyes and cheek, and shook her head adamantly. The pixies shrugged indifferently and capered off into the creeping mist to join the dance of the fireflies, their companion utterly forgotten. Beatrice shook her head ruefully, took Tibbin’s hand, and returned to his place amongst the birches. They slept soundly until roused by the zealous chorus of a morning in spring. Hand in hand, they left that lovely meadow and turned their steps and hearts longingly towards home.

They met the little man, still sitting on his accustomed stone and smoking his pipe, perhaps as he had done since the first morning of the world. He smiled joyously at them, waved enthusiastically, and then vanished. They shared a mystified smile and continued on their way. They might have slept another night in the bush but knew their parents were mourning their presumed fate and were eager to turn their weeping to joy. So it was that joy came with the morning. Their father stood aback the house, staring morbidly off into the hills and thought himself in a delirium when he glimpsed his lost children walking blithely back from the land of things forgotten and unknown. He trumpeted his wonder and joy so loudly that the entire village was roused. His wife came disbelieving from the house, took one look at what had so disquieted her husband, and added her own shriek of pure joy to the cacophony of laughing welcome and wonder.

The grim eyed, fretful villagers gathered round the happy little foursome and muttered darkly about curses, possession, and worse. A few even clutched a kitchen knife, pitchfork, or wood axe in nervous dread. The now grave father stood forth and asked of his disturbed folk, “my children have returned unscathed, why do you not rejoice?”

Said one distrustful old man, “who are you to say they are unscathed? Who knows what terrible curse might have been laid upon them? None venture into those hills and returns unchanged, if they return at all. They are a threat and a danger to us all as long as they remain among us. Send them back or send them away lest evil befall us all, else we will take matters into our own hands.”

The man shook his head in grim disgust, but before he could reply to this nonsense, Tibbin took his hand, looked gently into his eyes, and said with a wisdom far beyond his years, “heed him not father, he knows not of what he speaks and no words of yours will change his mind.” Unchanged indeed! The man smiled down at this young sage, caught the eyes of all his dear ones, and then looked once more upon those mysterious hills. A brilliant flicker of gold and white upon a far hill, like a distant star, filled all his vision and called bewitchingly to his very soul. Said Tibbin with tremulous, but joyous finality, “come, come away!” He took his father’s hand, his mother and sister joined theirs also, and the entire family boldly made for that distant vision, the flummoxed villagers parting before them like water around the bow of a boat. They vanished into those wondrous hills and were seen in that village no more. Many and dark were the rumors of the witchery that had taken an entire clan and the grim fate that had undoubtedly befallen them, but I can assure you, they were all of them wrong.

 

Sample story from ‘Legends of the Brethren:’

 

Of Poets and Heroes

 

The screams of horses and men filled the evening air with a chaos and horror ill-suited to the loveliness and quiet of the fading day. Two of the beasts faded away as they fell dead and the third trapped his master beneath his prone form. The trapped rider was himself uninjured save perhaps in the fall but several arrows had embedded themselves in his two companions and their fallen mounts; of the two, one lay unmoving and was likely dead, the other moved feebly but hope dawned as he caught the trapped man’s eye. They stared at one another for a moment, the one with growing hope and the other with a rising fear. The crunch of oncoming feet suddenly drew their attention as their foes approached. His eyes pleading for help, the arrow stricken man suddenly threw some small object into the distant brush and glanced significantly from the now hidden object to his trapped companion whose eyes held reluctance and fear, but a minimal nod of his head brought the shadow of a smile to the stricken man’s face before their enemies were upon them. A small band of vile looking men emerged from their ambush and looked about in delight at the carnage they had wrought. One of them turned over the unmoving man to reveal that nothing remained but a corpse.

Another approached the hopeful man and called out, “this one’s alive and should suit our purposes well enough. Be done with him.” One of the more vile of the company smiled in cruel anticipation, drew his sword as he approached, and finished that which the arrows had begun. His eyes widened momentarily in pain and then stared blankly as the sword was withdrawn from his unmoving chest. The whole group of them then approached the sole survivor yet trapped beneath his dead horse.

Said the leader of the repulsive band, “are you one of the Brethren then?”

The trapped man laughed mirthlessly, “I am simply an ill-fated poet who hoped to write the tale of some great heroic effort but alas, all I shall ever write is a lament to the foolishness of heroic quests if ever I write anything again.”

“Yes or no,” snarled the leader.

The poet winced at his tone and said, “I am not one of that fellowship.”

The man grinned cruelly and asked, “then why do you ride with them?”

Taking on a professional air the poet said, “as I have already related I hoped to write a firsthand account of whatever adventure my late companions hoped to accomplish. I fell in with them not quite a week ago.”

“You know nothing of their mission?” queried the leader in some amazement.

The poet sighed, “I only knew they were bound for Kyra on some desperate quest; I do not think even they knew their appointed task but hoped to find some contact upon our arrival.”

The sinister man said, “how were they to make contact?”

The poet shrugged, “they took that secret to the grave.”

The leader did not seem pleased, “then I have no further use for you.” The poet nodded grimly as the sword was raised again but the leader suddenly laughed, “I however like the idea of a lament against all for which the Brethren stand. I will spare your life poet but only for the promise of your work. Write well, for if you do not it might well be the last thing you do. Search them and their luggage, then we ride for Kyra.” The despots ransacked the living and the dead, but found nothing of interest. They vanished as quickly as they had come, leaving the trapped poet to somehow extract himself from beneath the dead horse. He painfully managed to pull himself from beneath his ill-fated mount, searched the vegetation concealing whatever it was his companion had hoped to hide, and finally discovered a small blue crystal cut in the shape of a star suspended from a satin ribbon of deepest blue. He looked over the trinket and wondered to whom it might belong and how he was to discover its keeper and his destiny.

He sighed, he was no hero. He sat heavily down upon the dead horse thinking about what had transpired in the last week to so utterly upset the course of his life. He had been a wandering poet who roamed from place to place and entertained as he could to keep his stomach full and a roof over his head. The commonfolk seemed to appreciate his efforts, at least enough that he did not starve. A week gone, the two adventurers had stumbled into the same inn where he was holding forth with his familiar evening oratory. They had listened appreciatively and once the night’s entertainment was finished, invited him over to their table for a mug of ale and some much needed conversation. They had struck up a lively conversation, all three being of a quick and learned mind, and had stayed up long past the time all sensible men were in bed. He had asked after their own travels and their tales amused and amazed him. Whether it was the late hour or the wine, the poet never knew but he soon found himself asking if he might not accompany them on their adventure. They exchanged a curious look and finally agreed that he could come, but that there might come a time when they might suddenly have to part company. There was some hint of imminent danger and intrigue, but then no story was complete without such so the poet readily agreed.

So it was that he found himself riding with them to the Southern Realms towards the kingdom of Kyra whose monarchy was suddenly in disarray and from whence had come a desperate note and the trinket that he now held in his hand. No one knew who had sent it, but only that it must be presented to the guards at the castle gates in the great city of Yorka. The owner claimed that the very fate of the country might rest upon this quest and help was needed soon. Kipril shuddered, wondering what strange adventure he had now become a participant in. He looked upon his dead companions and his silent promise to the dying man echoed in his mind. He had ever been an observer of life, a recorder of its wonders and perils, never a participant and now it had been thrust upon him. He was ill-suited to such an adventure not having wielded a sword since his youth and then only poorly, but there was no one else to whom this adventure could fall. He must at least attempt it, if only for the sake of the imperiled people of Kyra. He sighed heavily, stood, and began to salvage what he could from the wreckage. He filled his saddlebags with food and supplies, took up his bow, and then glanced at his fallen companion’s sword. He was perhaps not as skilled with the weapon as some, but it might be useful in his quest. Almost reverently, he took up the weapon for which his companion had no more mortal use. In the gathering dark, he took the road and hoped to put many miles between himself and the sorrow behind him.

 

Kipril awoke early and crawled from the small dell in which he had taken shelter for the night. He walked as fast and as far as he could that day, knowing full well that his quest was a hopeless one unless he soon acquired some swifter form of transportation. Evening was falling and the lights of an inn ahead drew his weary gaze. He felt that hope waited within, even if it were nothing more than an hour’s repose from the weary and lonely road he walked. He took a seat, ordered a mug of a nameless brew, and glanced about at his fellow patrons. He saw nothing but farmers and merchants until his eyes fell upon a young woman just entering the inn. She was well dressed and moved like a cat, making him wonder if she were not some minor noble’s daughter set out in search of adventure. Perhaps here was a chance to fob this foolish quest off upon someone else. She caught his gaze and curiosity drew her to the stranger’s table. He bought her a mug of his own nameless ale and she asked, “whither is your road sir and what quest lays at its end?”

He laughed in spite of himself and said, “it seems I am not the only lonely adventurer upon the road. I am currently walking to Kyra as my mount and companions have fallen upon the way but I shall not make it in time at the pace I currently set. What of you fair lady?”

She smiled at his words and said, “I too am upon a noble quest though perhaps one far less dire. I ride for fabled Astoria and seek there to join the Brethren. Are you perhaps one of those storied knights who has ridden forth in noble pursuit?”

Kipril could not help but laugh, “lady, I am simply a wandering poet that has had unwanted adventure thrust upon him for there is none else to carry on the task which my late companions had begun. They were of that noble calling but alas they have fallen by the way.”

She smiled curiously and said, “then at least your quest is a vital one and perhaps your heart nobler than you know. Perhaps I can aid those I hope to be my benefactors ere I ride to their country. If walking is too slow a pace, then let me lend you a horse upon the way.”

Kipril smiled gratefully and said, “that would be a great ease to my journey but I am still unworthy of this task. I have a borrowed sword but little skill with it. Could I beg your aid as well for I see you are not yourself unarmed?”

She smiled gaily at him and said, “I was afraid you would turn me away for I am a woman, but I shall joyfully aid your task. What is it we must do?”

Kipril laughed, “I know almost as little as you but I shall gladly accept your company. I have only a token to show at the gates of the castle and there our adventure may perhaps begin.”

Alia soon told her story of how her father, a minor noble, had given her the choice of a loveless marriage or taking her small inheritance and forever leaving his presence. She would not doom herself to such a grim fate and thus took her pittance and left behind all that she knew and loved. She had heard many strange tales of the Brethren in her youth and set out in search of the mysterious adventurers of song and story. She was eager to take part in a story of her own, even before ever she reached Astoria.

By common agreement they were saddled and upon the road ere the sun was up and it was not many days before their hurried pace brought them within the borders of Kyra and soon to the castle in the midst of the bustling city of Yorka. Kipril left Alia at an inn in the city that he might approach the gates alone. If he should not return, she was to make her own careful inquiries and if he discovered the nature of their adventure, he would swiftly return to tell the tale. Both knew well the cost of this errand might well be their lives, but Kipril pressed on out of duty and Alia in hopes of righting some wrong. The streets of Yorka were abuzz with the recent demise of the King in a hunting accident, the ascension of his brother to the throne, and the impending birth of the late King’s child and hoped for heir. What part the dark men would play in the matter was yet to be seen. Kipril approached the castle gates and proffered the charm to the guards posted there. They eyed the trinket with some curiosity but could not decide if the man was trying to sell it or simply asking after its owner.

A servant stationed nearby however gasped and said, “this man must immediately accompany me.” The guards glanced in wonder at the man who had silently stood watch for so many days and now finally spoke. They nodded grudgingly, but this was a personal servant to the Queen and not to be questioned nor gainsaid. They let the man pass and the servant led him deep into the castle to the private chambers whence the Queen had withdrawn to mourn her husband and await the birth of her child. It was she that had sent the urgent message and who now desperately awaited its answer.

Kipril was amazed to be presented before so distinguished a personage and was speechless for a moment as he made his bows. She smiled deeply and a glint of hope shone in her troubled eyes as she said, “so the Lady has sent my savior at last.”

Kipril blushed crimson and studied his feet saying, “I am no hero lady but a simple wanderer who has taken up a quest whose true heroes have already fallen in its course. I will do what I can, but I am no warrior but a poet.”

She nodded sadly and said, “then to you my brave poet will the duty fall. This then is my plea: if a male child should be born, to Astoria you must bear the infant in safety and secrecy, there to await the day when he can challenge his uncle for the throne of Kyra. For only a man can sit upon Kyra’s throne and this child is the only one with a rightful claim save my brother-in-law who has already taken the title of King upon himself. He was ever jealous of my husband and his demise was no accident though such is claimed, and if an heir should be born my son will not live long past his birth. But should a girl child be born, she is no threat to his rule and we may depart in peace to my family’s estates and he is forever free to rule Kyra as he sees fit.”

“When is the child due?” asked Kipril awkwardly.

She smiled and said, “any day. I had hoped for your arrival sooner due to the legendary swiftness of unicorns but alas your mounts are mortal horses.” As if in answer to his question a wince of pain crossed her face as she said, “perhaps even today!” The Queen winced again as she said, “I think that you arrived only just in time. Tonight will reveal whether your quest is a vain one.”

Her ladies escorted her to her chambers, the midwife was fetched, and Kipril was left in the sitting room with a silent servant. The night passed slowly and only occasional sounds of pain and frustration came from the adjoining room to break the silent vigil. Finally the unmistakable cry of an infant was heard and not long after it was repeated. The midwife rushed out all in a flutter and beckoned in the man who had waited so long; the Queen wished to see him without delay. He made a rather flustered bow and she smiled tiredly at his discomfiture. She said, “twins!” He looked at her in anticipation as she continued, “a boy and a girl, of course the boy’s birth shall remain an absolute secret and you shall bear him to safety until the appointed time. Are you ready to ride?”

He said, “I need only fetch my confederate and my luggage from a nearby inn and then we shall leave at once.”

“Confederate?” asked the Queen.

Kipril said, “a young woman I met by chance upon the way who was on her way to Astoria and agreed to this slight detour.”

The Queen smiled, “excellent, a man traveling with an infant would arouse suspicion. I do not think your encounter chance young man. Why did she not accompany you?”

Kipril said, “this mad adventure has already cost two men their lives. I was concerned about pursuit and did not want both of us to fall afoul of some unknown foe ere we knew our errand. She remained behind in case something happened to me.”

The Queen said, “you have acted wisely. Return to your inn, pack your things, and come to the small gate the servant shall show you as quickly as you can. Haste will ensure secrecy.”

He bowed again, met the servant in the adjoining room, and followed him on a twisting path out of the castle. They emerged in a dark alley and the small door shut silently behind Kipril as he dashed off in search of his inn. He had just stepped out into the main street abutting the alley when he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. He clutched at the wound as his knees buckled and he fell to the ground in agony; the air was filled with strangely familiar and sinister laughter. The dark voice said, “I told you to leave well enough alone boy! This is the price of meddling in business not your own. Who did you meet within the castle and to what purpose?”

“That I shall never tell,” groaned the stricken man.

“We shall see,” snarled the sinister voice as the man dashed off to investigate where the meddler had been.

Kipril struggled to his feet, holding his hand to his wounded side; he dashed off in a stumbling run towards the inn. Alia gasped when she saw who the ashen faced man was who nearly fainted as he entered the door of the inn. She had been speaking quietly with a man in the uniform of the Brethren. Both ran to aid the injured man on the verge of collapse. “What happened?” she gasped.

Kipril glanced about nervously, “we must talk quickly and privately. There is no time.” They wasted no time in helping him to sit on the edge of the bed in one of the guest rooms. Once they were alone he said, “as you know there are rumors about that the late King was murdered by his brother who made it look like a hunting accident. The Queen was concerned for the safety of her unborn child, should it be a boy and potential heir to the throne. If the child was a male, she wished one of the Brethren to carry him safely to Astoria to wait until he came of age to challenge his uncle for the throne. The Queen gave birth tonight to twins, a boy and a girl. She will withdraw quietly to her estates with the girl and waits for us to bear her son to safety. Alia, you must meet the servant at a small side gate and take the infant to Astoria.”

“What about you?” whispered she.

Kipril drew back his tunic from the wound and said grimly, “I am in no condition to travel nor do I think I shall long survive this wound. One of the men who ambushed my late companions fell upon me as I was leaving the castle. He must have seen me go in and waited for me to come out. He attacked me, questioned me, and then ran off to see what I would not tell him. He will be on the watch so you must be careful.”

The Brother spoke for the first time, “these are grim tidings indeed. I am the Lady’s Advisor to the King, or I was until the new King banished me from the castle, save for court functions, which is why I now haunt this inn. The child must reach safety at all costs. Take my mount, he will bear you swiftly and safely to Astoria.”

Alia’s eyes were wide, “me ride a unicorn?”

The man nodded grimly, “I cannot accompany you for I am needed here and neither is your friend in any condition for such an adventure. It must be you. Go, and may the Master ride with you.” She nodded grimly, bid farewell to her companions, and dashed from the room.

“Will she make it do you think?” asked Kipril of the other man. He only shook his head in wonder and helped make the stricken man as comfortable as he could.

Alia rode swiftly towards the small gate, astonished at the speed and silence of her mount. He was reluctant to so abandon his master but he knew this task was of the utmost importance. They arrived swiftly and nearly unseen for the unicorn had draped himself in darkness. Alia knocked upon the gate, it was opened by a cautious servant, she showed the crystal star as instructed, and soon received the child into her keeping along with those things that might prove his identity at the proper time. They dashed off together into the night bound for Astoria. Not far out of the city, the unicorn stopped and whinnied in fear but his master bid him run all the harder and he could not disobey. Some time after he screamed in rage and grief but continued on his course, faithful to his master’s last command.

 

The dark man left his injured foe and ran off into the darkness to see from whence he had come. He could not yet gain access to the castle and could learn nothing more upon a second investigation. He dashed back to find his nemesis fled and followed quickly after. Not long after the girl had left, the dark man burst through the window of the room in which his quarry lay helpless upon the bed. He had not expected to find one of the Brethren within, but all the better. The two men whirled about in a dance of death and steel while Kipril watched wide-eyed from the bed. The two were fairly evenly matched and it was hard to tell who had the upper hand. The dark man snarled in glee as he clipped his opponent on the shoulder and knew his victory was assured, but in his moment of triumph he dropped his guard for a brief second allowing his foe to strike a mortal blow. The man fell to the floor laughing through his pain and panted, “you think you have won but neither of you will long survive me.” He coughed a few times before succumbing to his wounds and then dissolved into an oily puddle on the floor.

The two survivors shared an astonished look and the Brother leant heavily upon the bedpost, clutching his injured shoulder and breathing heavily. Kipril asked in growing concern, “what is wrong? What did he mean you would not survive?”

The man said quietly through teeth clenched in pain, “I think there was some vile taint upon that blade of his and that it is quickly killing me. I doubt you will long survive me. That being the case, have you thought about what lies beyond death?”

Kipril stared at the man in astonishment, “you are nearer death than I and you want to talk philosophy?”

The man winced as he laughed and said, “I have no such worries but you might spend all eternity ruing these last few hours.”

Kipril frowned, “you Brethren are all fanatics on this topic. I suppose if this Master of yours does exist then I have naught to fear. I have lived a good life, or as good as any man could in my circumstances. Besides, I have gotten myself killed on his behalf, for which I think he owes me much.”

The dying man’s breathing was ragged and darkness was ever on the brink of overcoming him, but he fought against it saying, “with an attitude like that you are sure to spend an eternity apart from the Master and thus in utter darkness and despair. The Master is no man with whom you can bargain in the market place. He owes mortal man nothing. We are all rebels against his perfect way and we all justly deserve condemnation. Our best efforts are nothing to him. What can any mortal do that could impress or indebt the One who made us.”

“Then we are all doomed?” asked the skeptical Kipril.

The man was fading fast but said, “the price of rebellion is death, but the Master took that penalty upon himself to spare us if only we will accept his sacrifice on our behalf. He need not have known death, but he suffered death for us.”

“What must I do?” asked the stunned Kipril.

With his last breath the man said, “believe, trust, and give yourself utterly to him.” He toppled over and moved no more, leaving Kipril alone to contemplate eternity.

These Brethren were mad, absolutely mad! He had now seen three of them die for no good cause. Could they be right? In all the excitement he had forgotten about his own wound and now remembrance came crashing agonizingly back to the front of his mind. He was deathly weak and each breath became more and more a struggle. He glanced desperately at the dead man and idly wondered how long before he himself was naught but a corpse. His mind returned to those uneasy things of which the dying man had spoken. All his life he had heard the tales of the Master but had never felt inclined to think of them as more than just stories. What if there was something beyond humanity? Beyond death? It certainly made sense but how to know what was truly out there? He glanced again at the dead man and remembered how certain he had been even to the point of being able to proselytize upon the brink of death. Worse, his own heart seemed to tell him that here was the truth he had ignored all these years. His mind protested not wanting to admit that up until this moment perhaps his life truly had been lived in vain. The weariness deepened and darkness gnawed at the corners of his vision; the maw of eternity gaped before him and yet he wanted to protest, drag his feet, and hesitate.

Finally, the moments running out, he gasped, “I do not know you but I know I need you. Forgive my rebellion, my ignorance, and my hesitation. I have nothing to offer, but I am yours to use as you will.”

A voice like echoed thunder said quietly beside him, “I certainly shall.”

 

Alia rode swiftly to Astoria, her heart near to breaking for her fallen companions. The infant traveled well for one so new to the world and she wondered what hope rested upon the shoulders of one so small and innocent. The unicorn revealed his true form as they ran through the streets of Astoria that none might bar their way. The guards upon the castle gates watched curiously but allowed the strange woman to pass unhindered. It was not often that one not of the Brethren ever rode upon the back of so legendary a creature. They gaped even more to see the stranger clutching a very young child to her breast. She slid from the saddle and glanced about in near desperation, “I must see your Lady immediately concerning happenings in Kyra.”

A servant ran immediately to ask after the Lady’s availability and returned swiftly to lead the strange young woman to stand before their legendary leader. Alia told her story and presented the child and his accessories to the astonished Lady who replied, “these are certainly tragic tidings and we shall tend to the child as his mother wishes. Now what of you my dear? You who have traveled so far and risked so much; what is your part in this tale?” The infant was given into the care of a childless woman and her husband who were delighted to have such a charge. Alia was finally able to realize her goal of joining the Brethren.

 

The years passed and the child grew into a boy verging on manhood. For ten years, he grew up quietly at home thinking no more of himself than any other peasant’s son. At ten years of age he was allowed to go to Astoria to further his education with the renowned knowledge and teaching skills of the Brethren. At fifteen, he was convinced he wanted to become one of them. He stood before the Lady that day, nervous but hopeful to have his request granted. She looked at him quietly for a few moments and a small sadness seemed to flit through her eyes for a moment but was soon replaced with dead seriousness. She said, “Ian, I cannot grant that which you ask.”

He gaped and without thinking asked, “what have I done or not done that you will not allow me to join you?”

She smiled and said gently, “it is nothing of your doing but concerns a greater duty you must first fulfill.” He looked at her in absolute confusion as she continued, “as you are well aware, the Brethren cannot rule even a city, let alone a country save perhaps the Lady of Astoria. You cannot take your Oath because you are the rightful heir to the throne of Kyra and the time has come for you to journey thither and claim your birthright.” He looked at her as if she had gone mad.

She continued, “your father, the former King of Kyra was killed upon a hunting foray and many suspect his brother in the crime. Your uncle now rules Kyra with an iron fist and oppresses your people severely. Your father died before your birth and your mother feared for your life so sent you hence that you might grow up in safety. Your twin sister and mother yet reside upon your family estates in Kyra. Nothing is known to anyone outside the Brethren and a few faithful servants of your existence. My hope, and the hope of all Kyra, is that you return to the land of your birth and claim the throne that is rightfully yours and rule your people more justly than their current King. This is why I must deny you the Oath.”

He gaped at her and finally said, “I understand and know I must take this quest upon myself if only for the sake of the suffering Kyrans, but how am I, a mere boy to challenge a King?”

The Lady smiled warmly, “I will send several of the Brethren with you along with certain proofs of your valid claim to the throne. You must know this is a very dangerous quest; four men and two unicorns have already died in the events surrounding your birth. The King has many dangerous servants and advisors who will aid him in thwarting your efforts at all costs.”

Ian bowed deeply and said, “it is a risk I must take. What if I fail?”

The Lady smiled, “short of death I do not think you shall fail.”

He smiled weakly, “my only regret is not being able to serve you as one of the Brethren.”

She smiled warmly and said, “if you survive this ordeal and still have the interest in sixty years or so after you have passed your reign onto your children, I see no reason why you cannot yet join the Brethren.” He smiled deeply at her sincerity and wondered if his zeal could be so strong as to last six decades.

Alia and three others were dispatched to accompany the aspiring prince to Kyra. He carried with him a letter written by his mother and sealed with the royal signet ring, the crystal star charm, and his late father’s sword. It was early autumn and the weather was perfect for travel; the party made excellent progress and was soon nearing the borders of Kyra. It was at this point in their travels that Ian felt the adventure was about to begin; until now, he had been in a blissful half-dream but now was not the time for childish fancies when the fate of a nation rested upon his very inadequate shoulders. It was late afternoon and the sun had set all the world afire in shades of richest gold when a lone traveler approached the party upon the road. He drew rein and waited patiently for the party to approach.

One of the men asked as they drew nigh, “why do you bar our way stranger.”

The stranger suppressed a smile of secret amusement and said, “I do not bar your path but simply wish to join your party. I have come to aid you in your endeavors.”

The Brother laughed, “and what could you know of our errand?”

The stranger replied, “I have come to see finished the errand I began fifteen years ago.”

“And what errand would that be stranger?” asked the Brother cautiously.

The man smiled sheepishly and said, “to see a proper King restored to Kyra.”

“What part did you play in that sad tale,” asked the Brother in confusion, “I thought there were none living, save those in our party, to finish what was begun so long ago.”

“Alia can testify to my involvement,” said the man strangely.

All the while, Alia had been staring at the stranger in astonishment and could not quite believe her eyes. With his statement she said in doubt and horror, “Kipril? Is it truly you? I thought you long dead! What became of the Advisor to the King, his mount certainly felt him die.”

Kipril glanced towards the ground and then ruefully met her astonished gaze, “you know me for truly myself. Not long after you left, my attacker came to finish me only to find me not alone. They fought, the sinister man was killed, and my valiant protector did not long survive him. I was on the brink of death when I finally realized sense and surrendered my life, failing as it was, to the Master. The Master himself was in that room and took me at my word. He healed my wound and set me immediately upon this task. To you it has been fifteen years; to me it has been only a few minutes! I do not know what shall become of me once all is ended. I may perhaps live on for years or I might fall to dust the moment the King is crowned. At least my life will not have been lived completely in vain.”

The little company stared at him in astonishment, but the Brethren knew he spoke truly no matter how hard it was to believe. Alia smiled at her long lost friend and said, “then welcome back my friend. What counsel can you give us about matters in Kyra?”

Kipril said, “as you know, the King is a vile tyrant and sorely tries his people. What you may not know is that the men behind the deaths of three of your comrades fifteen years ago secretly aid and advise the King. The Queen and her daughter still live quietly in the country but the King has his eye on the girl as a prospective bride for his own son and heir. I suggest we break into two parties. Alia, the boy, and I shall ride to the former Queen’s estates and the rest of you shall ride to Yorka and assess the situation there. We shall meet you as soon as we have apprised the Queen of her son’s return.” The others quickly agreed and they set off immediately for their assigned destinations.

As Alia and her companions made camp that night, Ian asked, “how can this be?”

Alia laughed, “how can you have spent so many years among the Brethren and not believe in miracles?”

Ian smiled ruefully, “I suppose I do but I thought they only ever happened to other people. The Master truly does work in wonderful and mysterious ways!”

They rode on, avoided the patrols once they crossed into Kyra, and soon found themselves upon the Queen’s estates. Alia presented the star trinket to the guards at the great gates before the ancient house and a servant was quickly sent to inquire after the Queen. The astonished servant quickly returned and ushered the strangers into his lady’s presence. All three bowed and the aging woman stared in wonder and joy at her long sundered son. Finally each found the courage to embrace and a quick round of wondering questions and excited chatter followed.

After Ian met his sister and mother and all their curiosity and joy had momentarily been satisfied Alia asked, “how go things in Kyra? Are they as bad as we have heard? Any idea how the boy is to retake the throne?”

The queen said, “things are bad enough, especially for the commoners. In usual circumstances, Ian would present himself to the royal lawyers who would then decide whether he was the legal heir to the throne, but these are far from usual circumstances. I fear his uncle will kill him regardless.”

Kipril said, “I think secrecy will not avail us. Let us present ourselves before the entire court that a knife in the dark will not end all their worries. With enough witnesses perhaps the King will step down as he rightfully should. If he will not, then we will do what we must. He may challenge you to a duel for the crown and I am sure there will be treachery in the mix.”

Ian said firmly, “I will do what I must.”

They all agreed to the sketchy plan and the three set off at once with the Queen to follow after with the intent of attending court on the following evening when Ian would make his claims. They reached Yorka the following morning and met with the three that had gone ahead who agreed completely with their suppositions. The Brethren could not take the throne by force, but neither could the current King legally deny the claims of his nephew. His only recourse would be to have the upstart murdered, a dangerous task since all the city would soon know of the challenge to his throne or to challenge him to and best him in a duel.

 

The servants of evil had not been lax these many years either. They had a spy in the midst of the Queen’s servants and the moment he saw the star trinket he knew the game was afoot. He made his way to the city and swiftly reported his suspicions to his dark masters. So it was when the young renegade came to make his claims, the King and his sinister advisors were not taken unawares. They could have barred the youth an audience but then he would have made a scene in the street. He was too well protected to be silently murdered and it would be good to show the court exactly how such rebels were dealt with. The King actually looked forward to the confrontation and his associates would make sure that he was the victor. As expected, he made his appearance at court the following evening.

There was much gossip amongst the bystanders as the King had allowed word of the imposter to be spread abroad. Alia, Kipril, and his mother accompanied him to stand before the King; the rest of the Brethren spread out to make sure no ambush was imminent. Ian said in a voice for all to hear, “I hereby lay claim to the throne of Kyra held unjustly these fifteen years by the murderer of my father.”

The King laughed, “have you any proof boy that I killed your father or that you are even the late King’s son?”

Ian stood his ground and said, “I have no proof you murdered my father save the certainty in my heart. But I have ample proof I am the son of the late King.” He proffered his proofs and the royal lawyers examined the documents and artifacts for authenticity.

The King said, “I thought this woman bore a girl child.”

The former Queen spoke, “I gave birth to twins that night. The boy was safely hidden until he was of an age to claim his birthright.”

The King scoffed, “a likely story, you simply found a youth of the correct age and indoctrinated him.”

Alia spoke, “nay Sire, it was I that bore this very child to Astoria fifteen years ago. Know by the Oath that it is true.”

The King looked to the lawyers, “well?”

They nodded grimly, “the artifacts and proofs seem to be quite real. Can anyone bear testimony to the Queen’s story?”

An aged woman emerged from the crowd and the ancient midwife said, “she speaks truly. I was there when she gave birth and delivered a boy and a girl that night.”

“Very well,” said the King in much glee, “who is to say that you are the legal heir to the throne? Why must I vacate that which is lawfully mine?”

Alia spoke, “Kyran law states that in the presence of an immature heir, a Steward may be appointed until the boy is of age at which point he will assume the throne. Your reign is legally at an end. You are also accused of gaining the throne through treacherous means which would also nullify your right to reign.”

“You have no proof,” snarled the King, “and I will not relinquish the throne to this no name upstart. If he wants the throne he must step over my dead body to gain it; I challenge him to a duel.”

Ian looked concerned, “must I fight him?”

The royal lawyers looked grim, “under these circumstances it would violate all our customs not to. You have no legal requirements as such, but the people would not respect you if you declined. I also think your uncle would prove a dangerous enemy were he allowed to live.”

The King gave him a dangerous look and the lawyer replied, “I was only stating the obvious Sire, no insult was meant on your behalf.”

The King glared at his nephew, “well?”

The boy drew his sword in answer, the audience drew back to give them room to fight, and the King grinned as he drew his own blade and approached the boy. The lawyer intoned in a dreary voice for what seemed a decade the various rules before allowing the combatants to bow and face one another. The boy was young but skilled, the old man experienced but out of practice. They whirled about in a deadly dance while the dark aides of the King drew their own weapons to aid the King by treachery should such be necessary. The Brethren held their own swords at the ready seeing what the sinister men intended. It was the stamina of the younger man that won the day as his weary uncle knelt before him with chest heaving wildly for air. He mocked between breathes, “finish me boy or they shall think you too weak to rule.”

The boy shook his head, “no, you shall stand trial for my father’s murder. I will not make you a martyr or give you the honor of a swift death.”

At that moment, the sinister men in the crowd made to fall upon the boy but were met by an equal number of the Brethren. The King seeing his future looking bleak and his treacherous friends fighting for their lives, lunged forward with sword drawn upon the distracted boy. The blade buried itself deeply in Kipril’s chest as he leapt between Ian and his murderous uncle. Seeing his own doom near to hand, the vile King took his own life rather than losing it justly to the headsman. His vile henchmen did likewise rather than reveal their sinister allegiance.

The court was in uproar and confusion until the Brethren and heir apparent finally managed to calm them. No one understood why the dark men had dissolved into an oily puddle of goo upon death but the matter was soon forgotten as the lawyers proclaimed Ian the rightful heir to the throne now that his uncle was most certainly dead. Some of the more treacherous nobles made to sneak out but the Brethren barred their way until the new King could deal with them justly.

Ian stared down in dismay at Kipril’s shattered form, “I should be the one lying dead.”

Alia put a reassuring hand upon his back and smiled sadly at her fallen friend, “he was already assumed dead in your service Sire; it just happened a little later than we all thought. He knew well his duty and carried it out faithfully. We can all only hope to die so nobly. We will mourn a little, but grief should not be our constant companion, for we shall meet again beyond time if we remain faithful until the end ourselves.” The King was crowned and ruled his people justly for many years and once his own son was well established upon the throne, Ian quietly vanished and only his nearest kin and the Brethren knew what became of him after. The poet who thought himself no hero lived on in song and story long after Kyra itself had passed out of memory.

Excerpt from ‘The Greylands: Volume I:’

 

Prince Bryant sat in the common room with two sons of the greater lords of Ithamar; they all had older brothers and very little chance of ever taking their fathers’ places of import and influence unless their elder brothers succumbed to some mysterious illness or fell in battle. Thus they were relegated to the privileged but socially obscure branch upon which they perched. Much was expected of them by their noble parents but they would win little glory, wealth, or renown for anything they did, though their elder brothers seemed to accrue acclaim simply by getting out of bed of a morning. It was a seductive glue that bound them together: jealousy of their elder brothers and anger at fate for placing them in such an insignificant position. Most nights they could be found drowning their woes among the city’s many inns and drinking houses. When they gathered in such a place, the natives inevitably relocated so as not to find themselves in an awkward confrontation with such important and often drunk personages; the consequences of such an experience never favored the peasants. The boys would drink their fill and complain even more of the hardships of the world while the innkeeper listened and shook his head thinking they knew little of hardship and nothing of real life, at least not life as experienced by the vast majority of humanity throughout history.

Ithamar was not the worst of countries in those days in its treatment of its peasants but the taxes were high and common men had few rights in a conflict of interest with the nobility. So they drank and complained and bonded over their seeming sorrow. Then they would stumble home drunk, fall into bed while servants cleaned up the mess, and begin anew their tedious lives on the morrow, succored only by the hope of the coming night.

Bryant’s father the King, his elder brother, his mother, his numerous aunts, his grandmother, and everyone else in the Kingdom with the nerve often scolded him about his dissolute habits but he ignored them or scoffed or yelled back, all to no avail. Why did he not lead his father’s soldiers as his younger brother did or marry the daughter of some foreign King? Could he not learn something from all the philosophers and sages in the Kingdom and be of use to his father and brother in matters of state? Could he not quietly disappear to his country estates and hunt contentedly in obscurity and not cause a scene? Could he do anything but embarrass all his nearest relations? Deep within he found the whole thing somehow amusing, if only for the consternation it caused his elders; irritating all his nearest relations seemed the only joy he had left in life. On the outside he was all strut and show but within he yearned for meaning and direction and purpose. He was a boat adrift at sea without anchor, rudder, or sail while a storm raged around him with no end in sight. At least he felt as if he had something to look forward to in his nightly carousing though he always came away feeling small and empty and alone as he wandered home to bed in the small hours of the morning.

Dark were his thoughts that night, darker than his usual wont, for he felt if he continued to do nothing he would soon do something drastic, whether to himself or others he did not know. He said to his companions, “I am tired of this tedious life we live. Let us do something great or terrible, that we might end the tedium and do something to be remembered; even if we do not succeed, it is better to die in the attempt rather than die in obscurity. Shall we be famous or infamous?” His friends laughed drunkenly, for the night was far gone and much wine had passed their lips.

He continued, “as you will not choose I shall have the honor then. Let us be infamous! There are many failed adventurers and heroes and none know their names. I say let us be remembered in infamy, for a villain never truly dies though he live only in legend. We could be bandit kings but why stoop to such a level when we can reach far higher and take what fate herself has denied us? I say we reach for the crown itself my friends! Let us supplant my brother and even my father the King!”

He continued to draw heavily from the mug of nameless liquid before him and was lost for many minutes in his treasonous expostulations. Whether he was serious or not, his friends could not tell but his words greatly disturbed them. They continued to listen and ape interest but the plot (what little of it there was, it was mostly grand words and misty aspirations) had quickly sobered them even as it chilled them to the bone. They were as empty inside as the prince but where they were content to enjoy all the privileges their rank could bestow, he had long ago failed to be pleased by such vapid entertainments. He was desperate for something to change and he had almost convinced himself that this was the only way. He finally finished his diatribe and drained his glass. He wandered home and his friends followed at a distance. They saw him safely to bed and then waited sleeplessly for the hour when the King would be abroad.

After an eon, dawn finally revealed her glory and they saw the crown prince emerge from his chambers; they hurried to tell him of his brother’s embryonic treachery. He listened gravely to the miserable pair; they did not wish to betray their friend, but their friendship was not such that it would be worth their lives if they did not tell and were considered traitors by their silence and seeming complicity. They finished and the crown prince said, “let us to my father that he may hear these ill tidings.”

They hastened to the King’s chambers, awakened the slumbering monarch, and told again their terrible tale. The King began to fume and rage while the Queen begged him to be reasonable and speak with Bryant first, before calling for his head, which of course started a Royal argument.

The prince and the two lordlings quickly withdrew from the Royal bedchamber and the prince asked, “is my brother in jest, a drunken fool, or a true traitor?”

They shook their heads, “my lord, we know him little when he is sober; you had best ask him yourself.”

The prince said, “I shall.” He turned sharply on his heel and went to find his brother before their father could do something rash. Bryant was not happy to be so awakened, his head throbbed terribly, but he soon quit complaining when his brother told the reason for his visit. The elder said, “father may very well banish you for such talk if he does not simply call for your head! Are you in earnest?”

Bryant said quietly, “I am not sure, I need something to change and this is as good a scheme as any I can think of.”

His brother said, “if it had been a drunken jest, perhaps father could be appeased but I am afraid his anger shall fall swiftly and harshly upon you.” Bryant paled, said nothing, grabbed his sword belt and cloak, and fled the room. His brother silently watched him go. He did not wish to see his father’s wrath realized but neither could he acknowledge this cold-hearted stranger as his brother. By the time the argument was settled and the guards were sent to bring the errant boy to face his father, he was long fled.

Bryant ran for his life. He was astonished to realize that he might perhaps be a murderous fiend if given the chance, at least if it granted him the end he sought. He had hoped it had all been the ravings of a drunkard but he was horrified to realize that under the right circumstances he might be capable of doing just as he had boasted. He fled his father’s wrath but he could not flee the monster that was his own soul. He ran to the stable, found a saddled horse awaiting his rider, flung himself into the saddle, and galloped out of the courtyard. The servant that had been saddling the beast tried to pursue the prince with warning but to no avail; he had stolen a wild and dangerous animal that was stubborn beyond belief and resistant to even the cruelest methods of training. How he even stayed in the saddle was hard to imagine. He was a magnificent animal and had been brought as a gift to the crown prince by rich merchants as something of bribe, that he might remember them with favor when he succeeded his father. The creature was physically perfect but had a will of iron and would let no man on his back. The prince was the first to attain such a feat and that unknowingly. So they ran, and with the speed of the creature any other horse in the King’s stables would have a hard time catching them. The beast would deign to be led and saddled but would carry neither men nor burdens. The crown prince had ordered him saddled and hoped to break him that very morning, hoping to succeed where all others had failed.

They ran hard all day on the shortest road out of the country. As night was falling they finally stopped, the prince collapsed against a tree just over the border. His heart sank and his hand reached for his sword as he heard the sound of galloping hooves drawing swiftly nigh. Six of his father’s guards drew rein a bowshot from the prince and one aimed his arrow at the weary boy. The bowstring sang as the prince dove to the ground; the arrow embedded itself in the tree just above where his head had been. The guards then turned and rode off slowly into the dying day. Cautiously the prince stood and pulled the arrow from the tree. He found a small piece of paper attached to the shaft, which read, “know you now that you are henceforth banished from all the domains of Ithamar and all title, privilege, and rank is hereby denied you. If you should ever return, it will be as a criminal and an outlaw and your life is forfeit unless spared by the mercy of the King.”

Bryant sighed and said to the night air, “I wanted things to change and they have, but not in the way I intended. I am now an exile, a wanderer, an outlaw, a fugitive, with no home, people, or place to call my own. I am a fool.”

The sweat-lathered horse snorted and said, “you are certainly all of that, as am I, but you need not be a fool.”

The prince sat down hard in surprise and exhaustion, saying, “horses do not talk.”

The horse eyed him patiently and said, “perhaps, but then again it may be that just the horses of your acquaintance have never spoken. Either that or I am not a horse.” He snorted wryly in amusement, as if he had said something rather clever.

Taking the hint, the former prince said, “if you are not a horse, then what are you?”

The unhorse said, “let us just say I have been banished from amongst my own noble and glorious people and reduced to the state in which you currently find me. I have been stripped of all that makes my people unique and left a mortal nag.”

The unprince said, “and what did you do to become as you are? Who are your people and where do they come from?”

The unhorse said, “perhaps one day I shall tell you all the tale but for now you must suffice yourself with what I have already revealed. What of you?”

The boy sighed, “last night in a drunken rage I spoke of doing terrible things only to awaken and find that all know of my theoretical treachery and that some part of me is not averse to such acts. I can flee my father’s wrath but I cannot run from my own wretchedness.”

The horse looked at him thoughtfully and said, “until now I have revealed myself to no one, but trapped as I am, I shall go mad if I trust no one and soon shall think myself nothing but a silly horse in truth. Seeing as we are both rebels and outlaws, perhaps we can travel together for a time? I will allow you upon my back in exchange for your aid in keeping me out of the hands of strangers who would happily confiscate a wandering horse as I will seem if I travel alone.”

The boy laughed weakly, “I admit to you that I am a traitor, willing to do murder and yet I alone of all men am the man you choose to trust?”

The horse said, “you have not yet killed anyone and the fact that you are horrified at your own thoughts means there is yet some hope for you. We are both rebels and outcasts, perhaps together we can find redemption upon the road. Besides, you are alone and desperate and need me as much as I need you. You shall not get far afoot.”

“Where then shall we go?” asked the former prince.

The horse shook his head, “I do not know. Even if I returned to the lands of my people I would not be allowed to or even capable of entering that wondrous land. You have no skills or relations that might benefit you in the wide world?” The boy shook his head. The horse sighed, “then let us go north for now until something draws us elsewhere.” The boy nodded his agreement, for one direction was as good as any other at the moment. They wandered off the road a short distance and the boy was soon asleep.

Morning came and the boy rose damp and stiff but much refreshed, but he had brought nothing to eat or to start a fire with. Neither did he have a bow. He had his sword and dagger upon his hastily grabbed belt; his belt pouch was full of coins but there was nowhere to buy breakfast. He refreshed himself in a swiftly running creek, saddled the horse, and they were soon off though the boy’s stomach complained bitterly. The horse remarked, “it would be a far easier journey if you could sate yourself with grass as all sensible creatures do.”

The boy laughed and said, “you are the only sensible herbivore I have ever met. All other creatures that go on four legs have remained thankfully silent.”

The horse retorted, “that only proves their sense, for only man opens his mouth and makes sounds for no reason. At least doubt remains as to whether the silent beasts are truly fools or not; man has proved himself thus time and time again by his speech.”

About midday they stopped in a small village and the boy purchased what he would need for the journey and some much appreciated food. They continued on until nightfall at which point, the boy made a rough camp as the horse wandered off for his nightly meal. They continued on in this manner for several days and nothing truly remarkable happened. They were traveling north through Sebeka: the neighboring Kingdom to Ithamar, a peaceful and prosperous country that welcomed strangers and most especially their coin.

The horse said one day as they rode along, “what know you of happenings in the wide world?”

The boy said, “I paid little attention to world events, current or historic, save for a little about our closest neighbors. Now I begin to regret my inattention to my studies, for now I see the use of them when previously I thought it all nonsense.”

The horse said, “I know little of the countries of men, but I shall tell you what I know of your world in general. It is a vast place and there are many kings and kingdoms; some are prosperous and peaceful, others are evil and warlike, and there are all shades between. There is also much unclaimed and wild land wherein all manner of beasts and folk strange to men are to be found. Much of what you consider myth or legend is actually true and flourishes in such places. In the far south dwells an Evil Prince with much sway in the world. His minions ride wherever they will and do as they please, causing much grief amongst innocent folk. His kingdom is called the Infernal Realm and is separated from all else by impassable mountains, though any who wish can freely enter his gates. All is sere and waste within a hundred miles of those vile peaks and he holds sway over all within their shadow. Many of the Kings closest to his domain are his vassals and nearly as vile as he. He is a rebel against the Great King, who dwells far to the north in the Brightlands and once was His greatest servant. A great chasm in the earth, called the Rift by men, separates those dear lands from all others.”

He continued, “it is said that the Rift is a actually a rift in time and space, having no bottom. No mortal can cross that chasm save by the will of the Great King or His dear Son, the True Prince whose will is always that of His Father. It is from the Blessed Mountains that rim the Brightlands that my own kin come and from thence was I banished. Between the Brightlands and the Infernal Realm are the Grey Lands, in which mortal men dwell and that encompass all you know as real. It is in this strange plane that you are born, live, and die. After you pass the gates of death you must enter either the Brightlands, if you are a willing subject of the Great King, else you come under the dominion of the Dark Prince and you will never more come forth from the Infernal Realms. One day the Great King will reclaim the Grey Lands and forever banish the Dark Prince beyond his own mountains and seal the gate that none may pass out again. Then will all the world be as it was meant to be, before rebellion brought death and sorrow upon the face of the earth.”

The boy paled, “I have heard stories and legends of such things but never thought them more than tales. You tell me this is the truth! Whatever is a rebel of my standing to do? Am I doomed to dwell in that terrible place for all eternity?”

The horse shook his head, “I am a rebel myself and doomed to the same fate unless we can find a way out. My people are immortal, true and willing servants to the Great King, but alas I refused the duty He asked of me and I was thus banished. We never spoke of redemption, for we had no need of such a concept, but on these shattered shores on which I find myself the need is truly great. We must seek out one who can tell us this mystery.”

The boy nodded glumly and hoped with all his heart that a way could be found out of this pit of his own making. At least he knew now why they rode north; he had no wish to be nearer those awful lands than he absolutely had to be. “What or who are we looking for?” asked the boy.

The horse said, “there are supposedly men abroad, servants of the Great King, knowledgeable in all things pertaining to Him and His dealings with fallen men. It is one of these learned men that we seek, to learn what must be done to redeem ourselves.”

“Where are such folk to be found?” asked the boy.

The horse snorted in laughter, “an excellent question. I know little of mortal lands and know only what I have personally observed since my arrival in this dismal sphere and that which I have overheard men speak in my presence. Sadly, I seem to know more than you who were born in this place.”

The boy nodded glumly, ashamed of all he had failed to learn in his life and of all the time he had spent drowning himself in a mug of ale. The boy said, “perhaps instead of isolating ourselves of an evening, I should visit the local tavern and see if I cannot learn something of these mystics you speak of?”

The horse nodded in approval, “an excellent proposition.” They stopped early that evening, for they would not reach the next village before dark. The horse said to the boy, “be careful, for there are men who do not hold the Great King in high favor. The Dark Prince has spies and servants everywhere.”

The boy smiled slightly, “you are worried for my safety?”

The horse smiled, “let us just say it would be a far more difficult journey alone.” The boy’s smile deepened as he entered the inn while the horse wandered off into the night.

 

The boy took a seat far to the back and watched quietly from his private corner. The innkeeper eyed him speculatively but said nothing, for he caused no trouble. The boy watched the quiet conversations, tavern games, and the comings and goings of the various patrons. He marked out several shady looking characters but saw no one who seemed an ideal source of information. Full dark fell outside the grimy windows as a ragged traveler traipsed into the inn and wandered to the back of the common room. He surveyed the men scattered about the establishment and his eyes fell upon the boy, obviously a fellow stranger in this place. He made his way to the back and asked if he might share the boy’s small table. The boy was intrigued by the stranger and nodded eagerly. The man took a seat, the serving girl brought him a bowl of stew and some bread, and as he ate his meal he said, “what brings you to this place lad? One does not often see such youngsters wandering alone, save perhaps a few adventurous lads looking to be heroes.”

The boy said, “I wander because I must. My past is behind and all my unknown future lies ahead. I seek hope in a hopeless world and peace for a disquiet heart.”

The man smiled secretively and said quietly, “the world is not quite as hopeless as you might think, though sometimes it is dangerous to speak of that which is a light in even the darkest night. I am willing to speak with you but perhaps in a place less obvious?”

The boy nodded gravely and said, “my companion and I have ridden far in search of such knowledge. We are both wanderers seeking rest. What do you suggest?”

The man smiled, “let me finish my meal and then we shall talk for a time of trivialities to allay the suspicions of all here. Then you can wander off into the night and I shall follow when convenient. Wait for me along the road but well out of sight.” The boy nodded and they proceeded as planned.

Half an hour after the boy had gone, the man trudged wearily out into the dark, a man obviously too poor to afford a bed in such a place. A few eyed him speculatively but returned to their drinks, seeing nothing obviously to their benefit in yet another penniless traveler. The man wandered out into the road and waited silently until the boy crawled out of hiding and drew his attention. They vanished down an overgrown trail into a little clearing. The moon stood high and gave enough light to cast their faces into shadow. “Where is your companion?” asked the curious man. The boy smiled silently in amused anticipation as a horse stepped out of the shadowed woods and stopped before the man, looking at him as if awaiting some reply. The man looked from the horse to the boy and back again.

“Well?” asked the horse, “I have been told that this little interlude shall be worth missing part of my evening repast.”

The man gaped, “I have not had the pleasure of meeting a talking horse before, unless of course you are not actually a horse?”

The horse smiled in pleasure, “finally a man with some sense! Long have I hoped to meet such a specimen. I of course am no horse, save perhaps in appearance. And who pray tell are you and how come you to know more of wisdom than most men I have encountered?”

 

 

 

 

Into Shadow,’ an excerpt from ‘The Greylands: Volume VI:’

 

The crown prince could not sleep. He tossed and turned for nearly two hours that night, unable to settle his uneasy mind or still the unexplained terror coursing through his being. Unnamed fears in the dark had not kept him awake at night since he was a very little boy. Yet here he was, nearly a grown man on the very eve of the long awaited celebration that would mark his coming of age, fretting and restless because of a vague uneasiness about what lurked in the shadows of his own chamber. Ridiculous as it was, this realization did nothing to ease him into a blissful slumber, but then the reason for his uncanny feeling of wrongness presented itself and he wished with all his might that it was only fancy that plagued him. There were deeper shadows among the lesser shades of his room, and these began to whisper and hiss excitedly in an unknown tongue as they drew closer to the bed. The boy crouched deeper beneath the covers and shuddered, knowing there was no weapon that would avail him against such foes, at least until he heard a familiar scornful laugh.

“Come big brother,” chastised his younger brother Garot, “why do you cower beneath your covers like a terrified child? At least be man enough to face your doom with equanimity!”

Anger flared in Bayard’s heart, anger enough to overcome his terror, at least for a moment. He threw aside the blankets, not that they would be any protection against these mysterious fiends anyway, and glared into the darkness in the direction from which the taunts had come. Said he with a voice as smooth and chill as a winter pond, “what have you to do with this brother?”

The younger scoffed, “why everything of course! It was all my idea after all. Now you will kindly accompany these, um, gentlemen and I will assume your place as heir to the throne. After the proper mourning rituals are observed of course. It is a good thing I look well in black.”

“Of course,” said the elder, his anger fading and his fear flooding back with twice the vim. The shadows were suddenly upon him, his terror intensified to the point no mortal heart can bear and happily did he fall into unknowing blackness.

“Don’t forget the servant,” snarled Garot, “we need no witnesses.” The servant that stood beside the young prince, having let him into his sleeping brother’s chamber on the pretext of some dire situation that could not wait until morning, squeaked in terror and tried to flee, but one of the shadows engulfed him and all suddenly vanished, leaving Garot alone in the empty room. He smiled unseen into the darkness, a look of sheer triumph on his face, and then exited the way he had come. A passing guardsman eyed him oddly as he left his brother’s chambers at this strange hour, causing the Prince to sigh, for he knew the man would have to be dealt with as well which would mean more time wasted before he could get his own much needed rest.

 

The blissful darkness receded and the utter terror returned, along with a good dose of despair, shame, and horror just to keep things interesting. Bayard found himself standing in the midst of a crumbling ruin in the heart of a dark and dripping wood in the grim, flat light of predawn; his eyes strayed to the wide-eyed servant and he rejoiced to know he was not alone in this horrid nightmare, but the shifting wall of wraiths that completely hemmed them in quickly stifled even this minor comfort. A great and terrible roar shook the very foundations of the ruin and sent both mortals and shadows cringing to the overgrown paving stones as a hideous bird, resembling a vulture but large as a draft horse, landed in the middle of the gathering. It leered at them in silence for some time, savoring their terror as a gourmet might a fine morsel, and then it screeched in a harsh tongue which sent the wraiths rushing upon the prisoners. Once each was completely immobilized by half a dozen of the insubstantial beings, the vulturine monstrosity said in the tongue of men, “the choice is before you, pitiable wretches that you are. Become one of my pets or food for them instead. Well?”

The servant quivered in terror but managed to squeak defiantly, “never will I serve you! My Master is faithful even in death!”

The monster chortled in amusement, “so faithful that he allows you to fall into such a predicament with no hope of escape? Very well, you shall have your heart’s desire. Watch well Prince, what comes of those who refuse my offer of mercy. We shall see how faithful his master truly is!” He laughed in such a dreadful way that Bayard wished he had never heard of the concept.

The servant’s voice suddenly spoke with a confidence that belied his precarious circumstances, “do not forget who wrought you my Prince! Take comfort in the One who traded His glory for our sorrows…” The voice faded away even as the boy himself did. Bayard watched in horrified fascination as the lad began to grow misty and then vanished altogether, apparently absorbed by the shadows that held him, which now seemed far more substantial and looked almost solid with actual features in their once blank faces. He shuddered and looked with dread upon the creatures still holding him. How could he meet such an end? Yet how could he willingly become a creature such as this? The servant had seemed quite bold at the last, yet how could old fairy tales give him such courage? He glanced around at the fell gathering and suddenly began to believe that perhaps all the old myths and legends might not be as improbable as once he had thought them. If such creatures as these could walk the earth, why could not the other stories be true?

He was suddenly a small boy again, enraptured upon his mother’s knee as she told him the strangest tale of all. Of a great and glorious King who dwelt far from the sorrows and sins of men, who abandoned it all to walk among that wretched folk. Of his own inglorious end at the hands of those he had come to succor and how he paid the price that man himself could never pay, thus ending forever the terror of death and sin for those who loved him. It was a grand tale and once he had hoped it true, but it was only a story taught to children out of custom and habit in hopes of inculcating morality in their young hearts. His family was strong and need admit no weakness or failing. In general they were good and honorable folk and needed not the mercy of some benevolent being. So he had laid it aside with the other accouterments of childhood and focused on things more befitting a young prince nearing manhood. But his sword would avail him nothing at such a moment, neither would all his lessons in history and arithmetic. The servant was no fool and had faced his end with courage, could he do any less? All this passed through his mind in the few moments during which the servant vanished and then the vile bird turned his burning gaze upon the remaining prisoner.

“Well?” squawked the awful buzzard.

Bayard shuddered, but felt a strange boldness and an inexplicable hope welling up inside his chest in the midst of overwhelming despair. Said he as calmly as if he were taking tea with his mother in the garden, “I will have nothing to do with you or yours sir, do your worst. I am resigned rather to die than become such as these. Fool that I have been, I did not see until this very moment the Truth until death was looking me in the eye, at least I need not die as I have lived. I commend my soul to Him who wrought it and may He have mercy upon me!” The vulture shrugged and Bayard felt cold fingers digging deep into his being and pulling it in six different directions. There was no pain, only a growing sense of thinness about his person, a whelming dark, and then an all consuming light more terrible even than the shadow creatures. The moment before he lost all sense of anything, he thought he heard the sound of galloping hooves that stopped suddenly as a horse screamed and then he knew or perhaps was, nothing but light.

The breathless guard was flung from his horse as it spooked at the dreadful creatures gathered in the courtyard. He caught a brief glimpse of the nearly translucent prince before his vision exploded into stars as he bashed his head on the paving stones. The prince’s brother had sent him thither with all haste to see what had come of the crown prince and if there was any hope of rescue, but as he lay stunned on the moist pavement, his sluggish thoughts chastised him for so foolishly walking into an obvious trap. The shadows soon overwhelmed him too and afterwards, some of them almost appeared human. Of these, three returned to the palace to make sure the surviving prince held to his part of the bargain.

 

The Royal family had gathered as usual for their communal breakfast, it was the one time of day that all of them could be prevailed upon to make an appearance before the demands of the day soon drew them apart. Garot nearly dropped his teacup as his tardy brother entered the room, as if nothing untoward had happened the previous night. He greeted his parents and sister cheerily and stared in horror at his brother who was pale as death. Neither the King and Queen nor their daughter noticed the interaction, save to reply with an automatic greeting of their own, caught up as they were in their own toast and conversation. Bayard took his accustomed place across from his brother and continued to stare in concern, wondering what was wrong with the boy. His brother’s unexpected appearance was shock enough to Garot, Bayard’s look of worry over his treacherous brother’s reaction was even more perplexing. How had he survived? Why was he not declaring him the worst sort of traitor but instead stared at him in grave concern?

Bayard said quietly to his brother, “what ever is the matter Garot? You look as if you have seen a ghost!”

Garot found his tongue and answered in a feeble voice, “I am just stricken dumb at seeing you so full of cheer this morning. I had thought last night might have been rather difficult for you.”

Bayard smiled warmly, misunderstanding completely that his brother was not concerned about his health but rather with his own mental stability. Said he, “how did you know I had such a strange nightmare? But it was only a dream and though it began in the most horrible manner imaginable, the end was truly glorious and well worth the initial terror.”

Garot eyed him in disbelief. A nightmare?! The boy should be dead or worse! And here he was eating toast as if it were the most natural thing in the world, completely oblivious to his own brother’s treachery. He gulped down his tea, mumbled something about a busy day, and hastened from the room. Four sets of perplexed eyes watched him go but soon enough returned to their own thoughts. Garot bolted from the room with as much decorum as possible and then hastened back to his own chamber to think, but there he found three gentlemen or rather creatures resembling gentlemen awaiting him. They looked quite different from the shadowy beings he had barely glimpsed the previous night but the feeling of icy terror that squeezed his heart was certainly the same. Perhaps they could solve this desperate riddle.

 

 


The Greylands: Volume VII

A land of shadows, of mystery, of obfuscated Truth. Welcome to the Greylands, that strange world, within the bounds of Time, peopled by mortal men. We cannot see truly, only as through a glass, darkly. There are things that move and have their being completely beyond our ability to perceive them. There are things beyond our mortal ability to comprehend. There are hints and glimmers hidden within the body of revealed Truth, but there is much we do not know, cannot yet understand, and could never dare dream. These stories are mere fancy, with a seed of Truth at their core. They play with the ideas of mortality and Eternity, Time and things beyond it, and of course the epic battle of Good against Evil. Each stands alone, and though there are common themes, threads, names, and concepts, each story is an entity unto itself and should not be seen as occurring in the same world or mistaken for installments of a series. These are random musings, not Gospel Truth, and should not be taken as such. Joy, hope, and encouragement are hopefully a byproduct, but certainly not sound Theology. If you would know more of the true world beyond these Greylands, one must be a careful student of the Scriptures, not of silly stories such as these.

  • ISBN: 9781311195357
  • Author: Susan Skylark
  • Published: 2016-06-30 11:06:04
  • Words: 112333
The Greylands: Volume VII The Greylands: Volume VII