Copyright 2016 Justin Kauer
All rights reserved
Published by Justin Kauer
Cover image Copyright Justin Kauer 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental, unless you happen to live in Effulgia. In such a case, you may need to seek professional help.
As we each begin our individual quests in life and try to figure out who we really are in our heart of hearts — who it is that God knows we may become — most of us are given a name by which we will be known throughout our lives. So, what is in a name, what happens when it is lost, and what dangers does such an occurrence present?
It was a night that seemed to be lit up with the purest of magic, as the campfire roared, along with the radiance of the early autumn sunset that began to dwindle into chilling twilight, and as family old and young all gathered round to share in the warmth of the fire and bask in the glow of the stories that were about to be told. While the night grew darker, the stories grew more and more delightful, details of hunts and battles became greater and more and more embellished, much to the laughter of all who were listening. Eyes and hearts seemed to glow in the dark as blankets were passed out and cuddling commenced, while the stories continued. Lost ones of the family were remembered with both tears of sorrow at remembering the loss and tears of joy for their having passed to the next life, gratitude was expressed for the blessings which those loved ones were in the lives of each family member, plans were made for future ventures. Young ones’ eyes grew wide from tales of danger and peril. Old ones’ eyes shone more fondly as they watched the delight in their young ones’ faces. Love was woven tightly around them all.
It was the same every year for as long as the grandchildren could remember. The family pilgrimage was an event that was anticipated every year, just as the celebration of Christ’s Birth, The Resurrection, and other great holidays were revered and celebrated. Still, this was, in many ways a somewhat more special occasion, or at least different, as it had become a family tradition all of their own. It had been forgotten by many as to when the first of such outings actually began, but it was known that it was a special time of the year that had great meaning to the family. Much of said meaning was not really even discussed, even around the campfire, but all seemed to understand.
This particular night seemed destined to be the greatest of nights ever had by the family around the campfire. The flames leapt higher and brighter as the tales just rolled off of the tongues of each that took their turns telling tales that elicited squeals of delight from those who listened. At times, laughter would begin in a loud roar, followed by silence, only to erupt again after all caught their breath at the same time. But, perhaps the main reason behind the magic was that two voices rang out that had been missing for a couple of years. They were the voices of the great patriarch and his wife. They had not been able to accompany the crowd, for the matriarch had been ill these three years, and though they had not missed the pilgrimage the first year, it had taken a great toll on her health. Her loyal husband would not make the journey without her, especially while she was not feeling well. Should her health turn for the worse while he were gone, he would never forgive himself. Since then, however, she had recovered most of her strength and was able to convince the others to let her go.
A brief respite was offered, as the food had been prepared by the servants that had been picked to come on the journey (straws had to be drawn to see who should remain behind and who should travel with the royal family; the servants would not miss one of these outings for the world, especially now that the King and Queen were to travel!) You see, the King had a way of telling stories that would make the very air catch fire with amazing brilliance. He could hold an audience deeply enthralled with keen expectation right up until the last words that would almost always unfold a great bit of wisdom or a deep insight into the whole story that otherwise would never have been apparent. To say that his audiences were captive is an understatement, for they would willingly stay spellbound in a state of suspended marvel, partly because of the quality of the story, and partly because of the love they had for the teller of the tale; said love was great. So, the servants were delighted to go wherever he went and equally enchanted to serve him and his family along the way.
Supper over with, the storytelling began anew. The king got up, and called for the wagon to be brought to the fire so that he could be seen and heard by all that were gathered around the fire. Then he called all of the servants to stop what they were doing and join in the story. He placed a couple of logs on the fire, helped his good wife up to her seat, and then climbed up to the driver’s seat which now faced the fire. He watched the flames curl around the wood of the newly placed logs in the fire and lick the sides, leaving dark trails that soon started to glow and then burst into flame where the tongues had passed over the bark. His gaze grew distant, and his eyes glazed over for a moment, until his wife grabbed his hand and held it.
“There is a great lot of things that I must tell you all.” began the king, all of a sudden. “While some of these things which I am going to tell have been shared already tonight, I must say that there has been much second hand information and the many embellishments that have been added actually weaken the truth of what transpired. I do not blame the story teller, for he did try his best to do the story justice. However, for me, the story has much greater meaning as I have a unique insight as far as the story is concerned. So, now, with the help of my lovely wife, I (we, actually) will tell you the truth of the story that has now come to be known as ‘The Slave King’, or ‘The Great Bandit King’!”
Squeals of delight arose from the servants and served alike!
“Make no mistake!” he continued. “I tell it now. . . not that you may have great marvels to tell around a campfire, I’m sure that you will continue to tell the tale even long after I have left the tale that is my life on this sphere. However, the reason that I tell it to you now is simply to correct, for the record, the discrepancies that are had among the various versions of the story.
“It is true that I have not been able to join you on the journeys of the last two years. I have also noted that, rather than to visit the various sites in the list of notable places customarily seen along the way in a chronological way, that a new route has been devised to shorten the length of the journey, rather than the correct order of things. What I tell you here will give you a greater sense of the reason why I decided to have a pilgrimage of this sort in the very first place. While it is important merely to have each of my family members along on the journey, I should equally like them to be given the significance of the journey and sacrifice that was shown and given to the country which we all dearly love, even the great Effulgia, that they do the same!
“I want each of you to look into the flames and watch those flames that burn brightly there! Such is youth! It burns so brightly at first, but as the energy of the flames is given off, there is much smoke and spark as the impurities are burnt off. Just as these flames burn brightly before us now, so did the days of the young hero burn away, and, seemingly, as quickly.”
As the king told the tale, the flames would leap from the wood into the air and dance into figures that seemed to act out the very tale, as he told them of love and war — and the passion and honor, as well as the pitfalls and triumphs in both.
“Dusk was stealing across the evening sky.” he began. “A full array of fiery yellow, orange, and red tones engulfed the castle towers, leaving only the development of deep, dark shadows in their fading. The courtyards and gardens were all empty. A solemn silence swept through the still stone structures. Great billows of smoke filled the air, rolling into blinding billows that blotted out the vision, leaving its viewer in complete darkness. A voice that seemed to shake the whole earth rose from the darkness and said, ‘Awake and remember!’”
A young, well-built slave of average height awoke from his dream in a cold sweat. He gasped and looked all around him. He tried to think as to why the dream had such great emotions attached to it. Was it a memory, or merely a nightmare that had poured itself deeply down into his aching mind?
The tumult of a large slaver’s colony sent sharp waves of pain through his head. Every echoing thump of the horses’ hooves and every syllable from every “cheerful” command from the slave drivers seemed to beat a slow bludgeoning upon his brain.
One of the slavers, a great big hairy-chested beast of a man, yelled, “Boy, do you know how to cook?”
The young slave found himself nodding in spite of all of the pain. Then he had to wonder if he really knew the first thing about the subject.
“We need someone to take the place of ol’ BenDan. He never woke up today. It seems that he tripped and fell on his own knife . . . in the night. Normally I wouldn’t even ask you, being male, but we just sold all of the females to the Darvanian . . . umm . . . Well, anyway, the old cook was also male. Since there were no females, as I said, I just thought of you immediately when they asked for a replacement. You do know how to cook, right?”
“Yes, I do, sir.”
“Where did you learn?”
“I do not rightly recall, sir”
“What do you mean by that?”
“What do I mean by what, sir?”
“You say that you know how to cook! Where did you learn?”
“I . . . I really cannot say. I just know how to . . . When you asked me if I can cook, I found recipes popping out of my head. It was the only thing that seems to be able to elicit anything different than this awful headache that I have, sir.”
“What? What do they call you?” asked the slaver.
“I am . . . My name is . . . It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
“NORDHOLST!” yelled the slaver with cupped hands around his mouth in order to amplify his voice, which sent the young man’s hands to hold his head and curl up in a ball on the straw littered floor.
“I am quite sure that my name is not Nordholst!” replied the young man.
A slim, short, gray haired man came running as fast as he could, which was not very impressive at all; in fact, it was downright depressing.
“Yes, sir?” he panted.
“Nordholst, what did you say this boy’s name was?”
“Let’s see . . . Was it Al . . . Alvin?” answered Nordholst, whose voice had the gorgeous qualities of broken glass scraping on metal.
“I don’t know.” began Ryan, then he slightly angered, saying, “That’s why I am asking you!”
“Well, we do deal with so many different males from so many different cultures and lands that I find it hard to remember them all, let alone their names. Let’s see . . . Have you tried asking him? Maybe he would know such a thing!”
“You don’t think that I would have thought of such an extraordinary idea? Of course I asked him!” pressed the slaver sarcastically.
“Was it Ani . . . Anakin? Of course not! What a stupid name for a slave boy! He would probably resent such a name . . . and end up becoming some evil emperor’s lackey . . . Albert? . . . Al . . . It seems to me now that . . .”
“It seems to me that you never did know his name!” jabbed the slaver, or so it seemed to Nordholst.
“Yes I did, because Decebal came up to me when he first brought him from making the trade and told me his name. He had on his red tunic with his black robe which, personally, I think he wears when he is nervous, because he always has it on when there are hostile trades to be undertaken — or royalty. There was the time when he was dealing with the king of . . . Oh, what’s the name of that kingdom just below and over Darvania?”
“Below and over Darvania?”
“Yes, that is the one!” Nordholst whined.
“How can a country be below and over Darvania, you bellowing buffoon?”
Nordholst thought for a minute, opened his mouth as if to answer in eloquent oration, and then stood staring back at Ryan.
“No! The one that is just next to Portland!”
“No. I’m talking about the other one.”
“No.” replied Nordholst.
“Do you mean Farsland?” said the slaver, more annoyed by the second at Nordholst’s lack of any real knowledge.
“Yes! That’s it!”
“Farsland is two countries over to the west!”
“But you knew which one I was talking about!” Nordholst rifled back in a way that showed that he had obviously thought that he had been treated unfairly by his leader.
“You have never even been there, and besides, we only deal with three countries!” said the slaver.
“True, but he wore it when he left.”
“Who wore what when he left?”
“The red tunic!”
“Oh, Decebal! It is true that he does wear the red tunic and black robe when he deals with the king there, and anywhere (though he didn’t have it on when he left, he just took it with him). He doesn’t want to offend them by wearing his purple robes in front of royalty, but when we met with the leader of the bandits at Verdis GranSecas, he did the same; they are just a group of scoundrels that have amassed to avoid arrest!”
“Ah . . . True! But ‘e calls himself King of the Bandits!”
“Quite so, Nordholst.” admitted the slaver.
“Well, we finally have that settled!” claimed Nordholst in victorious tones.
“Yes, INDEED!” grunted the slaver.
“Was there anything else that I can do for you today?” Nordholst sneered, notably upset both at the tones that the slaver was using in dealing with him and at the fact that he just realized that there was not only said tone of anger, but also a sub-tone of condescendence (well, maybe the tones rivaled each other).
“You can bow down and kiss the ground that I walk on!” suggested the slaver, as if in confirmation of Nordholst’s suspicions.
“Look! I ain’t one of your slaves that you can just order around. We’re not . . .”
“I do apologize!” interrupted the slaver. “I do tend to order others around. It’s what I do for a living. It’s just that I have Decebal breathing down my neck and there’s all of this talk of war.”
“That may be true, but it’s really a matter of forgetting who you’re talking to. I forgive you, nonetheless.”
The two simply stood there for a while, looking all around to avoid eye contact. Nordholst shuffled his feet in the pebbles that lined the rocky ground. The slaver scratched his arm and then acted surprised when he saw a bug bite that had been there for some time, judging by the scabbing.
Finally, to break the awkward silence, the slaver offered, “Alban, let’s get you to the kitchen.”
“So, you knew his name all this time!?” Nordholst screeched. “You call me over from my work and practically accuse me of not knowing about when Decebal wears his red tunic or purple robes in front of what countries’ royalties, as well as start ordering me around!? I don’t even like that!”
“I thought that we had gotten past all of that!”
“True. But that was before I knew that you already knew his name!”
“I am still unsure about what his real name is. It seems that he was called Alban or Alden. So, there’s a fifty percent chance that I am seemingly right!” the slaver asserted, quite pleased with himself. “Anyway, why, in the name of Galendetra’s Whistle do you pay so much attention to Decebal’s wardrobe?” he continued, “No matter! I don’t want to know! I’m sure that the boy’s memory will return to him soon. He just got a good knock on his noggin.”
“Believe me, it doesn’t feel like it is even close to good!” assured Alban.
This elicited laughter from the slave driver. Nordholst soon joined in with a nasally high-toned noise that was probably supposed to be laughter. Alban felt that it was much more like a woodpecker drilling into his skull at several different angles.
Alban tried to get up, but found it impossible by himself. He struggled a few times more. Finally the slave driver offered a hand. Alban reached for his hand, and soon found himself on his feet. He wobbled a bit, and soon his arm was placed around the slaver’s shoulders as he helped Alban wander toward the kitchen area.
When they got there, Alban surveyed the area. He was disgusted with the lack of cleanliness, but it seemed to have a fairly good selection of wares of the trade, so he thanked the slaver for the ride and began to further survey the possibilities of the services within the kitchen.
“Sir?” he asked
“Yes?” replied the slaver.
“Is there any way that I could get some help in here to get this place cleaned up?”
“Of course, we are slavers! Yes. How many will you need?”
“Normally, I would say five, but since this kitchen has been neglected, and the meals have not been prepared, at least ten will be needed — some for the cleaning and some to help prepare.”
The slaver just stared at him in amazement. Alban wondered if he had said something wrong so he looked about him as if to catch something that he had missed.
“My boy, who are you?” the slaver asked in all seriousness. “I mean, most slaves would never have asked for help, much less have known how many for which to ask. You are polite as well, which is rare for a slave.”
“I thought that you had just been through all of this identity crisis with Nordholst!” laughed Alban, much to the agony of his aching head.
The slaver also laughed. “You can call me Ryan. If you do well here, things may go well for you. If you do not, well, we will obviously sell you to the highest bidder.” He paused for a moment and then added, “Good luck!”
“Thank you, sir.” replied Alban.
With that, Ryan turned and left. Alban could hear his captor’s voice yelling sarcastically, “I need ten men for kitchen duty. Are there any volunteers?”
Shortly, Ryan returned with a group of men and told them that Alban was in charge, and if they got out of line, they would answer to him. He then turned back to Alban and said that he would leave him to it.
Alban instinctively began, pointing at each, one by one, “You, make a fire big enough for boiling water. You, go and fill this large pot with said water. Judging from the size of the pot and the placement of the pump over the sink, you may have to fill another pot a few times and empty it into the larger pot. When it be full and the fire lit, place the water on the fire to boil. The rest of you start cleaning. You, grab the broom over there in the corner, and start to sweep. The rest of you start to clear all of the dishes from the table and look for a stopper for the sink’s drain as you go.”
“What . . . about me?” asked a short, fat slave.
“I didn’t give you anything to do?” asked Alban.
The slave just shook his head nervously.
“Do you not understand that I said that the rest of you begin to clear the tables and look for a stopper for the sink?”
“No, I not know.” replied the slave in an accent that Alban finally perceived through the haze in his head.
“E’tate limpiaco dan miezhan e buscaco dac tappa.” he said, pointing to the sink.
Surprised, the slave nodded and began to work with no further reservations. Ryan, who had remained to watch, stared again in amazement.
“You speak Goff?” he asked at length.
“Uhhmm . . . I guess so.” replied Alban, chuckling slightly to himself.
“If I find out that you are not telling me the truth about your memory, you will be severely punished.”
“Well, it is odd. I can recall things.” said Alban, rubbing his head. “In other words, I remember how to do things like cook and, apparently, how to speak Goff. However, neither do I remember how I know them, nor do I know who I am, nor from where I am. I also just remembered that the neither/nor sentence structure that I just used usually involves just two negative choices.” Then he gasped, “I just used three!” To dissuade attention from his possible error in syntax and the fact that he may even be wrong in his correction, he quickly added, “Incidentally, where are we now?”
“We are in the kitchen!” Ryan mused.
“Yes, I can see that, but in what country or province is this kitchen located? What household owns this kitchen?”
“We are here in the kitchen of . . .” began Ryan, but he was interrupted by the crashing of pots and pans that had fallen to the floor.
Alban’s head began to throb a bit harder at the clamor. He thought that the woodpecker must have flown away. Now there was most definitely an axehawk smashing into his skull.
“You will not find any creatures in there, you gnarled-up axehawk!” Alban said aloud.
“But, it was an accident!” protested the slave that had knocked over the stack of pots and pans that crashed loudly against the stone floor. “Besides, I am not gnarled-up, and axehawks aren’t even real!”
“I meant no harm; in fact, I was thinking . . . aloud, apparently . . . about (and to) the aching of my head. I was thinking about the pain being compared to an axehawk smashing into the base of my skull. By the way, axehawks are really real, really. I have seen them soar high above and then swoop down and smash into the trunks of the trees, crashing through the hollowed out wood and bringing out a squirrel or small bird as its prize. It is really quite remarkable to watch. But I imagine that if one were to smash in the back of one’s skull, that it would feel like this headache does for me.”
“Where have you seen these axehawks?” quizzed Ryan.
Alban opened his mouth to answer, but found that he had nothing to give. So, he just shrugged his shoulders. Suddenly he felt dizzy, and began to see stars. Ryan saw that he was paling even more, so he asked him if he needed anything.
“Just bring me a chair, and I’ll have this bunch of blunderers whipped into shape in no time.” Alban commanded.
Ryan turned himself quickly around and began to leave the room, when a realization flashed over his face. He couldn’t believe that he was actually taking orders from a slave. He tried his best to dissimulate by yelling through the open door for someone to bring him a chair. To his pride’s pain, no one answered. Of course, there would not be anyone else nearby this early in the morning. He decided to have one of the slaves that were already in the kitchen to go and fetch a chair for Alban to sit on. It was rapidly brought and placed before Alban. It was all that he could do to sit in it and not fall over.
Soon, Alban found himself going in and out of consciousness. He would remember later that he kept telling people to go off and ready the next step in the dishes that they were preparing, only to see them right by his side asking what they needed to do next. He needed reminding exactly what it was that they were cooking and the steps that they had already taken. Finally, he realized that only one ingredient was needed to finish the last dish.
“Put the quart of cow’s milk in the sauce, and bring it to a boil. Serve it over the pork and potatoes while it is all hot . . .” Alban instructed, as things began to go black.
Then, Alban heard the soft, kind, female voice of what he thought at first to be an angel calling him home because it seemed to light a fire of peace in his heart. Soon he realized, though, that she was just asking if he was alright. He thought to himself that a real angel would already know the state of things better than he. Though somehow, he knew that he would be fine, now that this substitute angel had arrived. He felt her soft hands holding his, and then the hair being brushed back from his face.
“That Ryan is a perfect idiot!” the voice said in tones much gruffer than before, and perhaps not befitting an angel, as Alban slipped out of consciousness.
“Good morning!” was the next thing that Alban heard. It was spoken by Ryan, which was really a huge letdown for Alban.
“Oh! My aching head!” exclaimed Alban. “I need some food, too!”
“Do you refer to the food that you were cooking?” Ryan chuckled. “That food was served for breakfast two days ago . . . and also for lunch that day . . . and for supper . . . and breakfast the next day . . . yesterday! Boy, do you know how to cook! You made enough for a whole castle and its army. We had to serve it for the whole two days that you have been out, and you would think that the men would have complained at having to eat the same thing for each meal, but they were all saddened at the news that there was no more this morning for breakfast. Where did you learn to cook like that?”
Alban opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
“You still don’t remember, do you?”
Alban just shook his head.
“I thought as much. But, I do believe you. I mean, you’ve been out cold for two days. Not even a peep or snort has come out of you! Though, there were other noises, there were no delirious moans or anything. In fact, a few times. . . Joan, the girl that we had watching over you, she thought that you were dead a couple of times. She even called for the doctor to pronounce you dead on one occasion. To tell you the truth, I thought that she was right that time. We were getting ready to carry you out of the supply wagon, and leave you for the beasts of the desert. But the doctor said that he could feel a pulse. He saw that there were flowers called sorrow’s misery or something like that in the same wagon with you. He demanded that we move you at once. Apparently, those flowers can cause deep sleep when smelled for a while, and can put a body to sleep for good when they’re exposed for a prolon . . . a pro . . . well, a while.
“That’s why you are here in my personal wagon. I figured that it was the least that I could do after nearly getting you killed twice — once when I put you in the supply wagon, and another when I nearly left you for dead here in the desert.”
Alban looked around himself, and was surprised to find that the cabin of the “wagon” was really quite spacious. There was a big bed where he was resting (which he had noticed to be quite comfortable, to tell the truth), an area that was used for dressing (complete with a small dresser), and even a table and chairs upon which the traveler could sit and dine. The woodwork was quite exquisite, boasting carvings that depicted scenes of hunters killing their prey, amid ornate floral swirl patterns and tree lines. The ceiling had a gorgeous painting of the creation of man with God above in the clouds, breathing life into Oggart (the first man) who also had a wound on the side that faced Aurora (his wife and helpmeet). Later, from the outside, Alban would notice that the wagon was really huge, and that there was no optical illusion as to cause one to say, “It looks bigger on the inside.” The whole thing was extra wide and long. So much so, that there would be no way for it to pass through the narrow streets of many villages, especially if there should be a sharp turn in the road. It was drawn by a team made up of eight harvins (great big work horses that were probably twenty four hands high at the shoulder, maybe more). Ryan liked to be able to move at a good, fast pace if needs be, and while a couple pair of the greater oxen would definitely do the job, they were slow and cumbersome.
“I said, ‘That’s why you are here in my personal wagon. I figured that it was the least that I could do after nearly getting you killed twice — once when I put you in the supply wagon, and another when I nearly left you for dead.’” Ryan stated in an ‘aren’t you going to respond to that?’ sort of way.
“Then I am deeply indebted to you. You could have left me to die in either case, but you did not. I am most grateful.” said Alban as he rubbed his eyes with his free hand.
“Don’t think that I am emotionally attached to you! I just knew that if Decebal should ever find out, he’d have me whipped good and bloody! Well, he might try, anyway. As it is, you might fetch a great price. How many slaves do you know of that can cook, organize men (even while in extreme pain and going in and out of consciousness) and are bilingual on top of all that? . . . I know . . . that you don’t remember. Still, you’re a rare buy, and I think that I would now be in serious trouble should anything have happened to you, so we are both lucky in this . . .”
“Occasion?” Alban completed his sentence.
“Yes, this occasion.”
“It is said ‘on’ this occasion, but that does not really matter.” corrected Alban, and then walked his assertion back a bit.
“True. It doesn’t!” stated Ryan, miffed at the grammatical correction. “Besides, I was going to say ‘in this situation’. In which case, it would have been perfectly correct.”
“Anyway, with any and all personal detachment noted, I still thank you for your thoughtfulness. Such an attribute is a rare find, and must be treasured on every occasion that grants it. And if that isn’t enough, from all that I have seen, you do a great job at serving your master. That’s a good quality as well.”
“Do you always go around spewing compliments, or could it be that the bump on your head has jarred something loose?”
Alban drew another futile breath as if to answer, and then simply shrugged his shoulders; both laughed. Then Alban grabbed his head in somewhat mild . . . agony. He also winced a bit from a pain that he hadn’t noticed in his ribs. He looked down at his side, and noticed a bandage.
“How long has that been there?” he asked.
“Do you mean the bandage or the wound?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Well, you had that stab wound when you came to us, but the bandage was dressed just a couple of hours ago.”
“You say that I came to you. How long have I been with you?”
“Oh . . . I guess five or six days. You had been with us for a couple of days before I got back to headquarters. You were moaning then, but nothing cohere . . . nothing that I could make out, except singing something about . . . a fair maiden that lived by the glen in Effulgia’s . . . something or other. Nordholst said that we should just put you out of your misery because you would never survive!”
“The more that I learn about Nordholst, the less I like about him.” marveled Alban.
“Now I know that you’re a smart young man!” Ryan quipped, as he let out a loud roar of laughter. He noticed that Alban thought that it was funny, as he smiled big, but didn’t want to upset his wounds by laughing, so he added, “We’ll get along quite well after you are all healed up. You know, the funny thing is that I had wanted to know why in the world you had on the clothes that you were wearing. Half of me kept you alive just to find that out. There’s Nordholst trying to finish the job that someone started, and there was I trying to keep him from it. That was the other half . . . I wanted to know who it was that started that job, too. Now you can’t even tell me a thing! That’s irony for you, for you see, irony is . . .”
“When someone explains something in great detail that which one already knows?” offered Alban to Ryan’s displeasure. So, Alban tried recovery by distraction. “Why, if I came to you with these wounds days ago, is my side still bleeding?”
“Oh . . . you did get jostled a bit as you were being loaded from wagon to wagon. It must have been opened back up then. The doctor re-stitched it up. Nasty wound, anyway. Anyway, I must attend to my duties.”
As Ryan turned to leave the covered wagon, Alban blurted out, “I am sorry. I should not have been so curt with you. It was probably the aching of my head. Anyway, I do believe that we shall be better friends when I recover. Again, sir, I do apologize and ask for your forgiveness. I would stand with my hat in hand, but neither can I stand, nor do I know where my hat, should I even own one, might be.”
“You use the formalities in your manners?”
“Is that not how an apology is made?”
“You really are a mystery. At any rate, I accept your apology, and I raise you a meal. That will help keep your strength up, and perhaps (eventually) provide a solution to the great secret as to your identity and what you are all about.”
“I should be most grateful. I am having a hard time even holding . . . this conversation . . .” offered Alban as voice trailed off and eyes closed.
Ryan laughed for a moment — until he realized that Nordholst had been standing there for quite some time.
“How long have you been there?” asked Ryan.
“Long enough to hear what I needed to hear.” was the reply from Nordholst, who thought that he now had something to hold over Ryan’s head.
“Good!” answered Ryan. “It’s about time that you knew how others feel about your running about, grumbling all the time!”
“I knew that you hated me from the moment that I got here. Look, just because you have been with Decebal for so long, doesn’t mean that you can treat the rest of us crewmen like we are dirt!”
“Nordholst, I’ve been trying find a way to put this all delicately enough that you should not be offended. It seems that this was really the only way to show you, however truly . . . unintentionally . . . that as a person, you are the worst . . . errrr . . . Well, you just . . .”
“Spit it out, you farvret blaster!” yelled Nordholst with a nasty, cold tone.
“You are just an egregious idiot!” Ryan blurted out without thinking. “Again, I didn’t want to tell you . . . like this, in front of the whole caravan, but now you’ve forced my hand. Anyway, there you have it. So . . .”
“You’ve done it now! Wait until everyone else hears how you’ve been yelling at me!”
“They all have! If you think that they cannot hear your loud, nasally whine throughout the whole company, you have another thing coming to you!”
“I suppose that you think that you’re man enough to give it to me!”
“Nordholst, I’m twice your size!” Ryan laughed with glee. “This is just as far as this all goes — and I mean that it ends here and now. There is no need for any further problems. You have found out some of your character flaws that, quite frankly, you probably already knew about.”
“What do you mean by character flaws? Now you’re saying that I have character flaws?”
“Yes. No. Look! Character flaws are imperfections in a person’s personality — things that show . . . things that make a person less desirable.”
“And so you just hang them character flaws around my neck to make me less desirable?”
“You’re doing a great job all by yourself, because I haven’t hung anything on you. I just mentioned those qualities . . .”
“Or lack thereof!”
“Yes, thank you for pointing that out! Anyway, I mentioned a few of those undesirable things, and you overheard through your evident eavesdropping — another character flaw.”
“So now, just because I overhear you sullying my honored name (which you shouldn’t have been doing to begin with), you have to hang these ‘character flaws’ around my neck so that no one will like me!”
“Oh, boy! Nordholst, nobody likes you. You know, I used to think that you were being cantankerous, but now I realize that you just don’t get it!”
“Can’t anchor us, huh? If anybody can anchor us it’s me. Do you think that you are smarter than me?”
“Smarter than I!” corrected Alban.
“What?” Nordholst gasped, stunned by the slave’s consciousness and grammatical correction.
“It is said ‘smarter than I’. ‘Do you think that you are smarter than I?’” Alban restated. Taking advantage of the pause at Nordholst’s surprise, he then turned to Ryan and asked, “How about that meal? If what you say is true, and I do not doubt it, I am literally starving to death. Could you please have something brought to eat?”
“Yes, certainly!” replied Ryan. Then he turned to Nordholst and said, “Would you please have someone bring him some food?”
As Nordholst nodded and turned to leave, he realized that he had been turned about, but decided that he would never win that argument now, what with his not having understood the correction of his grammar. He left, mumbling about character flaws and anchors, growing louder after he thought that he was out of earshot.
“Thank, you. I don’t think that I would ever have gotten out of that circular argument without that interruption. He’s more trouble than most of the slaves!” joked Ryan.
“I hate to speak of a man like this, but I find myself having a hard time not saying it. He’s like an animal tied to a treadmill. His only choice is to go forward without changing course; but at least he keeps the wheels turning!” Alban laughed.
“Yeah, but he’s got them going in the wrong direction!” jeered Ryan.
Both laughed long and hard, though Alban contained himself a bit more than Ryan, for obvious reasons.
That was it. That was the moment that Ryan knew that they would be friends in spite of the apparent social differences. It sort of scared him. He had never given cause for controversy before in all of his years at his current position, or any other, for that matter. He had paid his dues to rise in rank or position. He was never given any preference at all. In fact, Decebal really didn’t like him; he just knew that he needed Ryan. The owner had always tried to convince him that this was his company, and that if he ever crossed him, he would never find work again. It was the old ‘do as I say, or I’ll throw you and your family out and let you starve to death’ routine. The problem with all of that is that it was Ryan that had made the best contacts. It was he that made friends easily and, for that very reason, he was sent to new villages or towns to sniff around and contract new accounts. It was he that won over the contract with the southern Darvanian mining colony, which now proved to be their biggest account. It accounted for the majority of their sales for a number of years, and eventually led to the opening of sales to the new emperor. Still, because it was a good job that did pay unreasonably huge sums of money, he didn’t want to jeopardize all that he had worked for just because he happened to like the cut of a slave’s jib.
The train of thought that was circling in Ryan’s mind as he laughed was soon interrupted by a young woman. She had brought something for Alban to eat.
“Ah. Nordholst must be getting faster! I just barely told him to get some food for our ailing . . . for this young man.”
“Nobody told me to bring the food. I just knew that he would be in need of some form of nourishment, being asleep so long!” she stated in a semi-annoyed tone. “If we women didn’t take care of you men, I don’t know how you’d get by.”
“Probably in peace!” returned Ryan.
“Well, what?” asked Ryan.
“I have brought this man his food from the kitchen wagon. Are you going to let me through to give it to him?” the young lady quipped.
“An ‘excuse me’ should be the first thing out of your mouth, lassie, in a situation like this, but since young Alban is starved, I’ll let it go this time. Anyway, I have a whole list of things that I am behind on. Alban, I’ll leave you with a warning not to trust this woman. She’ll rob you blind!” Ryan laughed, as his voice trailed off.
With that last remark, Alban had to wonder what he was in for.
Alban watched as the opening of the door darkened and then gave way to the silhouette of a young, shapely woman. She entered into the wagon, which was quite spacious. From what Alban could see in the dim light of the wagon, she was a very good looking young lady. Her dark, curly hair was well kempt and tied back in a ponytail. Her clothes were not the best of fabric, but they were well made and kept clean. She had her eyes low, looking at a tray of food in her hand which she began to arrange. He suddenly realized what Ryan meant about robbing him. Alban had wondered what she could possibly steal from him that would be of worth. When he saw the tray of food, he knew that it was his heart that he should guard from being taken. Then she looked up from her tasks of setting out all of the food and organizing all of the utensils, cup and drink.
Their eyes met.
. . .
. . .
. . .
Alban was the first to realize that he was staring; she realized the same was true for her. They both turned their heads as if to look away, but their gazes were fixed.
The young woman tried to say something, but it came out as, “Open . . . eyes.”
Just when it seemed as they would be caught there in each other’s eyes for all eternity, the high-pitched nasal whine of Nordholst’s voice came shattering the very air.
“If I had known that you were fetching him food, I wouldn’t have gone for these biscuits! Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me what’s going on?” he whined the most perfectly odious whine.
“Nordholst, if you had any sense in your head, you’d have gone and gotten it yourself!” snapped the girl, in a tone that turned about all aggression, and put Nordholst to feeling quite sheepish. It also elicited a bright red blush on her face, possibly due to the fact that she had made no sense, or that she had lost her temper in front of Alban, but it was probably both.
“I’m sorry. I just didn’t know . . . but. . . Wait! I did go get them myself.” was his reply, which he might as well have bleated out.
“Well . . . go and get me a new bandage! This one is all bled through!”
“I am sorry . . . I mean, yes, my lady!” Nordholst retreated.
When he was sure that Nordholst was out of earshot (this time), Alban half whispered, “Thank you. My head cannot take much more of his voice today.”
“You are welcome!” she said, in a voice that Alban thought was straight from heaven because it was soft and quiet enough that he felt the peaceful fire return. “How are we feeling today?”
“We?” asked Alban. “I guess we’re doing just . . . fine. We’re a bit nervous, though.”
“Well . . .” she giggled. “You’ll find that I don’t bite.”
“When I said we, I meant both of us; but I don’t bite either . . . at least, not very hard!”
She didn’t laugh. As Alban pondered as to why his comedic response had not been well received, he thought that perhaps it was the fact that he called her on her being nervous as well that had stifled any laughter.
“I’m . . . well, they tell me that my name is Alban.”
“I know that.” was the response. “You still don’t remember anything?”
“No, my lady, I do not. Though from your voice, I know you to be the substitute angel.” he affirmed. After a pause he added, “I think that it is customary that when two people meet, and one introduces himself, the other should reply in kind.”
“Oh! You should remember that!” she laughed.
“The fact that we have met before. I told you all about me, and my family, where I grew up as a girl, all kinds of things!”
“Had I remembered, I wouldn’t have introduced myself. Could you please humor me? I really don’t remember much other than waking up with a huge headache, cooking a meal in a kitchen where I met the substitute angel (perhaps you mean that we met then), and then waking up in a wagon.” explained Alban.
“Maybe that is due to the misery’s sorrow that was in the supply wagon.” offered the young girl.
“It is more likely due to the head injury . . . or, perhaps, a combination of both.” offered Alban, unsure what she meant by the misery’s sorrow. He did wonder why sorrow should rob him of his memory, but he did remember his misery.
The girl just smiled at Alban who was becoming a bit impatient. He figured, though, that he might want to forget all about this girl, after all. There may be something amiss if she didn’t want to give her name.
“Look, if you don’t want me to know your name, I’ll just make something up. It may be better that way, anyway.” he spouted. “For all I know, being in such a mixed up state, you’re some gorgeous demoness, spat up from hell in order to tempt me to eat worms!”
“You have a strange way of talking with women! I don’t know if I should be upset or flattered by those remarks.” she returned.
“I think . . . both!” laughed Alban. “But until you decide to answer, I will call you Eir, after the Nardigan goddess of mercy and healing. Look, I was kidding about the demoness part, and I am literally starving! May I please have something to eat?”
“Oh! Yes. Here.” she said, as she put some stew into a bowl and served it to Alban. “It is not nearly as good as the food that you prepared last week, but it is food.”
“I think that food is just the thing to eat right now.” he offered. It wasn’t the best of remarks, but that is what he said. She laughed anyway, so it was fine.
He started to reach for the bowl, but found that his right arm was tied down tight against his chest. It surprised him that he had not noticed that before. Maybe the pain in his head had made him not want to move, so he didn’t notice? He was unsure.
“What happened to my right arm?” he asked himself aloud.
“Oh. That happened when they were moving you from the supply wagon to this one. The doctor says that it isn’t broken, just sprained. That’s why they tied it to your chest.”
“But, it hurts here in the forearm!”
“Yes, but the tying it down helps to keep you from using it . . . umm . . . too much.”
“How am I supposed to eat if I have my hand tied?”
“I have been giving you sips of water, milk, and broth from time to time. I could feed you, for now.”
“Just exactly what are feeding me today?”
“Well . . .” began the young woman, realizing that there was double meaning in Alban’s tone but, being unsure as to the exact way he was thinking, she simply stated, “I think that I’ll just feed you this food that I have here.”
“And the food that you have there is . . . what?
“Well, it’s not the great feast that you cooked for the whole company back at headquarters, but it is not worms, either. Where did you learn to cook like that?”
“Joan, I haven’t the slightest idea. Every time that I wake up, people keep asking me if I remember anything about my past. The truth is that I remember how to do things like to cook, for example; I just can’t remember the important things like my name or from where I come.”
“How do you know that my name is Joan, if you don’t remember anything?”
“It was first Ryan, and then you told me the rest, just now.”
“What do you mean? I never said . . .” she stopped, midsentence.
“Ryan said that there was a young woman that had been looking after me. He said it with a twinkle in his eye. I figure that may be because you are an attractive woman, maybe not. I guess that only time may tell.”
“Well, either I am attractive or not! What do you mean time will tell?”
“I was mostly talking about the motive for the twinkle . . . I am sorry . . . Are you really just going to starve me to death? I mean, if you could just tell me if this whole thing was devised as a type of cruel torture, I would be much happier. Then again, it may be part of the very same torture. You know what? Do not tell me. I am literally dying of the suspense!” Alban began to rant.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot for a moment.”
“You forgot?” started Alban, notably upset. “How could you forget? It was the one thing that you came in here . . . to . . . Well, maybe it wasn’t the only thing that you were sent in here to do. Maybe there was something else that . . .”
With that, Joan shoved a spoonful of stew right into Alban’s mouth. It was not some cliché moment when he was surprised by the action. He saw her loading up the spoon. It was simply the fact that there was food on it that made him gladly chomp down on the spoon and empty it of its contents.
“Oh! That’s about the worst stew that I have ever tasted! . . . I think. But please, keep it coming. It does seem edible.” Alban said between chews.
Joan feigned surprised offense; but even in the feeding frenzy that Alban found himself, he was not fooled. She realized this, and began to protest.
“So, you don’t like my cooking!”
“We both know that it is not your cooking. You said that you had brought some food from the kitchen. Had you actually cooked it, you would have owned its preparation as well.”
“Well, of all the . . . You have no proof . . .”
“Then, please tell me what you put into this lousy stew . . . Go ahead. I’m waiting.”
“I put some pork and . . .”
“I’ll stop you right there. That is not pork, it is bear. You should have done better with a story about beef that was first grilled and then . . . Well, anyway, you are a bad liar — that’s a good thing! I should hate to start off any friendship with a deception, though the attempt is noted. May I have some more stew, please?”
The more that Alban talked, the more Joan looked worried. The thought of putting more food into her patient’s mouth in order to shut him up was ever so inviting. She hurried in loading up the spoon with more bear stew and then shoveling it into Alban’s mouth. As she pulled the spoon away, her hand was trembling. Alban looked at her hand, and then back into Joan’s eyes. She looked around as though she could see right through the wood of the wagon wall as a way of warning Alban of something. He realized that someone must be listening. He nodded in understanding. Joan looked surprised at his discovery, for she had not been trying to give anything away, but she settled a bit when she knew that the young man could be trusted.
“Tell me again, then about your background. Where did you come from? What is your favorite season of the year? How did you get to be so beautiful? You know . . . the like.” Alban began anew in whispered tones.
“Oh. You are too kind!” Joan blushed. “I guess it’s just from my mother’s side of the family.”
“So, you know of your outward appearance and assumed that I was speaking about that. I do not take as much stock in such things as most people, though they are nice. I was speaking to the fact that you are mostly honest, unless under duress. I have been able to surmise that you have a good heart under that outward appearance. You have shown me kindness. You have nourished me and helped me to stay alive, and have made me more comfortable. You were also slow to anger when I pushed you. That is where true grace and beauty live and thrive — in the kindness shown to others. I thank you for all of that. I was, now obviously, referring to your deep inner beauty.” Alban whispered softly.
Joan looked up from the bowl of stew and looked back at Alban’s with eyes welling up with gratitude. She swallowed hard to try and take back some of the tears forming in her eyes, but one fell down her right cheek.
“How . . . how did you do that?” she asked in whispered tones, as she began to sob.
“I am sorry. How did I do what? If I have hurt your feelings, I am sorry.”
Fighting back the tears and in a hushed whisper, the young woman explained between sobs. “I have been with this company for a few months now. I am treated as poorly as the lowly slaves unfortunate enough to be captured and sold into this company. I have endured hardship after hardship all along the way. I have been working for days to help heal you, though I didn’t know why. No one asked me to help you or to do anything in particular, until today when they wanted to know more about your background, and if you really couldn’t remember anything about it. This whole time, I cared for your wounds. I made sure that you didn’t get dehydrated. I watched to see that you had all that you needed. And then you wake up, and with just a few words heal me. Your kind words have come to me at a time when I began to think that this world had little left to offer me. I don’t care where you came from or who you really are. I shall always be yours, your true friend, I mean. Whatever you need, just ask. Whoever you are, you’re a good man. I should expect great things from you . . . when and . . . if you regain your memory.
“Next time, I’ll try to get you something better than old bear stew.” she said aloud for whomever it was that was eavesdropping outside could hear. She gathered up the bowl and tray and, as she headed out the wagon door, whispered. “Take care.”
“And you, too, my lady.” answered Alban.
Just then, the rumble of horses’ hooves came rumbling up to the caravan. Ryan called everyone to arms, but another voice, in drunken dishevelment shouted him down.
“There’s no need to pre . . . to get all . . . to fear!” it said.
“But that is CoAgulon! He’s that Darvanian piece of . . .”
“I said that I wuzz . . . expactr . . . expecting . . . him!”
“No you did not!” returned Ryan.
“Yes . . . I . . .”
“No you did NOT!” Ryan replied.
“Well, I wuzz a goin’ tuh.” said the drunkard.
“Decebal, you are a slinking, slithering snake! You know full and well of the evil he wreaked on my home village! He razed it to the ground and all that were in it! My sister and brother . . .”
“Of which village do you speak?” asked CoAgulon who had now reached them.
“You know full and well, CoAgulon!”
“They were casualties of war!” CoAgulon spat out.
“No, no, NO! You will not try that one with me! You led all of the men off with a decoy and fell upon the women and children — by design of plan, not even as the spoils of war! Had they attacked you, it would have been different. As it was, they were too young to have done anything to you or your men, had they even tried, you murderous, filthy . . .”
“I’ll have your tongue if you don’t control it here and now!” CoAgulon hissed by way of threat.
“But, it is all true, Decebal, and you know it!” Ryan challenged.
“Not the part about being filthy.” CoAgulon stated coldly as ice. “I do my best to keep myself looking gorgeously immaculate! . . . Why don’t you avenge them now? I would release these men from my defense, if you should like!”
“I know you and your men! You are most devious in battle and have no honor. Perhaps that is why you are now working for Reg . . .”
“Enough! Where is that slave?” CoAgulon howled.
“Well, we have quite a few slaves!” Decebal’s Chief of Guard (Ryan) quipped. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Decebal, you will have to contain your yapping hound! I shall stand for no more insolence!” CoAgulon roared. “One last time, Decebal, where is the lost slave?”
“He must be back at my main camp, I mean, at my stronghold.”
“I have just returned from there, it is no stronghold, and there was no slave that matched the right description, DECEBAL!”
“Ah! Did you check in the kitchen? He was quite good at cooking, we found out.”
“I searched high and low for him, but he was nowhere to be found! If I find that you got a better offer from the Effulgians, I shall give you a lashing for every talent above our agreed price!” CoAgulon hissed and even spat between his tightly clenched teeth.
“Well, you can search my whole caravan, if you should like.” Decebal said agreeably.
“I shall. There was no question on that matter.”
Upon hearing that the whole caravan was to be searched, Alban felt a strong urge to try and flee. He turned over on his stomach in order to push his way up, but his strength left him, and he fell back down on the bed, unconscious.
The last thing that he had heard was the voice of CoAgulon saying, “Let’s search this big old wagon!” followed by Ryan’s protest.
Alban awoke the next day around noon, confused and still in a lot of pain. How in the world was he still travelling along in the caravan? He looked around to see where he was. He noticed a door in the carriage in which he rode. He opened the same door to look out. The sun was high in the sky and the heat of the desert sun was scorching hot. He was obviously not in the slaver’s camp, nor in the foothills of Goff, but in the deserts of the Verdis GranSecas. Alban wondered how he knew the name of the place by merely seeing the sands seemingly rushing by the wagon. The thought that the heat would soon turn the deep green sand to glass arose in his head. Somehow he knew that its color was caused by the breaking down of the green quartz in the area.
Many foreign travelers that were ignorant to the fame of this valley would come over the ridge of one of the mountains that surrounded this desert and think that they were about to be saved from the dry, river-less valleys that approach the summit passes on either side of the low desert basin valley. As they would look down, all that they could see were lush, green fields of green grass growing on the valley floor far below. After they had traveled down the mountain slopes about halfway, the heat would begin to give telltale signs that something was amiss. Still, it would be necessary to press on, because even though they could feel the terrible heat growing, the thought of water would coax them further. Soon the weary travelers would find themselves stumbling along the deep green dust of the desert floor until they tumbled their last tumble. From the southeast pass, however, they could see a small lake below if the sun hit it just right. It was an even more cruel deception. If they should ever reach the lake that was surrounded by all kinds of obstacles, their journey would also end in powerful disappointment, as the waters were unfit to drink, unless distilled, of course.
As the company traveled along, Alban just sat there looking at the sand streak as he passed it by. The green dust seemed to form figures that moved. For a moment, he thought he saw a castle with great, tall towers and a great gate. He felt a strong yearning deep inside, but he didn’t know why. He felt almost like crying — almost. It was peculiar to him that such a thing should come about out of the blue like that. Still, something was there, locked deep inside of his mind. It was something of great worth to him, obviously. It was an unwelcome mystery to him. He sat and puzzled over that as the wagon veered to the side of the well-worn trail and came to a complete stop.
He noticed another wagon that pulled up just ahead of the one in which he rode. It also stopped. Alban watched a familiar figure that was silhouetted in the dust get out and come towards him.
“What are you doing out of bed?” asked the figure in Joan’s voice.
“I am sitting here watching the . . . dust . . . I guess.” said Alban.
“Don’t you have any sense in your head?” asked Joan, as she neared the wagon closely enough for Alban to make out her face in the dust.
After thinking it over for a split second, Alban returned, “I might have some sense in my head, if you would quit coming and robbing me of it with your breathtaking beauty!”
Some of the men riding by began to laugh. Joan feigned anger, but Alban knew that it was just for show because he could see her face blush with shy pleasure and, though her scowl stayed in place, her eyes shone bright and the corners of her mouth turned upwards with happiness as she heard the remark.
“You should be resting, or you’ll never get those wounds healed!”
“The wounds of my heart cannot he healed if I sit still any longer, fair maiden!” continued Alban.
Just as Alban was finished, an angry, red faced man came riding up in a great, big, huge wagon. Alban had thought that Ryan’s wagon was the largest possible. This man’s wagon was nearly twice as big. Alban thought to himself that there must be a full kitchen and cleaning staff traveling in there.
“What is this dog doing here in the desert and in Ryan’s wagon?” he asked between clinched teeth. “He should have been given over to CoAgulon! There will be the vargon’s bane to pay!”
“Father, he is still weak from his wounds and the blow to his head. He lost a lot of blood when we were moving him from the supply wagon and I . . .” began Joan, before being cut off by the man.
“You ought to keep to your wagon, as I have told you to do these many times! Uhhh . . . what if . . . raiders were to come upon us and catch us unawares? We would be unable to defend you! I told you that you would only be allowed on this trip if you obeyed all of my orders with utmost strictness!”
“Yes, Dec . . . Father, I know. You know that I always obey, but this man was in need of help, so I came to help. I think that you will like him, Father. He reminds me of you in so many ways.”
“Do not change the subject!” the slaver boss roared. “You dare to disobey me!? How could you? I do not want the whole caravan murmuring that Decebal can’t even control a single little wen . . . my own daughter.”
“Father, I am sorry. I was just doing my duty in helping the men and tending to their wounds. Those were also part of your orders.”
“I said nothing of tending to slave’s wounds, however, and . . . I can’t abide disobedience especially from . . . from my own daughter! Disobedience can . . .”
“It can sometimes save lives if . . .” began Alban.
“SILENCE!” roared Decebal. “You insolent s . . .”
“Forgive me my impertinence, but in your zeal you have overlooked that light green cloud of dust just over the dune there. It could be some of those very raiders that you were mentioning.”
“What are you talking about?”
Alban just pointed over to the distant hill from behind which the dust was rising.
“To arms!” yelled Ryan, who had sidled up on his horse beside Decebal as he had been barking orders from his chariot.
Decebal was startled at the exclamation, so much so that he let out a small, high-pitched yelp. When he recovered from the shock, he joined in with, “To arms! Ryan, you take your company, and . . .”
“No. Circle the Wagons and chariots on the top of that plateaued hill over there. We should be able to do quite nicely from there, but we may need to hold them off until the wagons can get there.” said Alban — it was out of his mouth before he knew that it was he that was speaking.
Ryan gave him a quizzing glance and looked back at Decebal, whose face was still redder with anger. Ryan knew that he must act quickly, so he got between Alban and Decebal and said, “It is a very sound plan, and perhaps our only option, sir.”
Decebal thought for a moment, and then agreed. He told the driver of his chariot to drive, glaring the whole time at Alban. Alban just shook his head and looked back to Ryan.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he asked with noted concern. “Just stay clear of Decebal!”
Alban calmed him a bit by saying “If I had, we would be riding right up into this trap ahead. He will understand.”
“No! He won’t! He hates it when slaves . . . I mean, he loves his daughter more than anything.”
“Then why did he leave me behind?” asked Joan.
“Joan! What are you doing?” asked Ryan, who had barely noticed her.
“Get into the wagon with me. The one in which you were riding has gone.” Alban ordered by way of explanation. “I will see you clear of this bit of trouble.”
“No! Wait! I want to . . .” began Ryan as she ran for the wagon door. “Decebal will be furious!”
“If we live through this, I will welcome the chastisement!” returned Alban. “Besides, we cannot just leave her here! Go on. Get the men ready!”
With that, Ryan turned his horse and said, “Take good care of her . . . and my coach!”
“You know that I will or you would not even think of leaving her with me.” alleged Alban to Ryan as the later rode off. Then to Joan he stated, “Be careful on those steps.”
He held out his hand and helped the young maiden up the ladder steps and into the wagon. She shut the door behind her and locked it with the iron bar that was there for that purpose. Alban looked out the small opening in the top of the door to see what was going on. He could see no immediate danger, so he yelled for the driver to move on. When the driver started the horses out quickly, Alban turned to see how Joan was holding up. She was shaking with fear and when she saw Alban’s eyes meet hers, she let out a whimper in fright. Alban sat on the bed beside Joan.
Alban debated inside of himself as far as what to do to reassure her. He still did not know exactly where she was from, but did know from her accent that she was not from this area, though her “father” seemed to sport the same dialect as the rest of the crew. He did not know what the customs were in her part of the world. He wanted to put his arms around her and say that everything was going to be alright. However, he also knew that in some cultures, that would mean marriage, so he just looked into her eyes. She hugged him instead. Feeling that he was in the clear, he put his arms around her and said that he would protect her at all costs. She hugged tighter at hearing that, but she still trembled.
The coach started to move in one direction, went only a few wagon lengths, and then stopped completely. Then, it started off with a jolt. It turned almost completely around and whisked off as fast as the horses would carry them. Alban let go of Joan, but she kept hanging on, even as he looked out the opening again to see what had happened. He saw armed riders with clothes that were dyed in green streaks surrounding the wagon. Alban saw one with a cocked crossbow. As he aimed it at the wagon, Alban shut the thick wooden shutters on the windows. No sooner than they were shut, an arrowhead pierced the thick wood with a twanging thud. They rode for about a minute or two and then they came to a halt. Joan clung even tighter, which didn’t help Alban’s side that much.
Suddenly, Alban saw a red robe hanging by Joan just to the side of the bed and a plan began to develop inside of his mind.
“Give me that robe . . . and that shirt!” he demanded.
Joan let go of him, turned, and grabbed the clothes for him. He cut his tied arm loose with a knife he had found and put the clothes on as quickly as he could. Just then they heard the men outside beginning to try the door. The wagon was well made, but it wouldn’t hold forever.
“Look, Joan. I am going to do my best to keep them from getting in here, but if I don’t go out there now, they are just going to put fire to the whole of the wagon with us in it. Do you understand?”
“Don’t go!” she pleaded.
“You know that I must . . . See. Did you hear that?”
“They called for a torch.” they said at the same time, surprised that the other understood the thieves’ language.
Joan asked, eyes wide with fear, “What are you going to do?”
“I am going to pray like all depends on God, then go outside and mouth off like all depends on what they do next!” Alban said with a smile.
Alban’s trembling hand lifted the bar that locked the door, opened the door slowly, and began to step out of the door. A sword was thrust at him, which he instinctively dodged while he stepped toward his attacker. He stole the blade by grabbing the lead arm by the wrist which he twisted with his right hand, and locking the elbow in a hyperextended fashion with his left. The sword flew from the clutches of the bandit that had been wielding it. The sword crashed to the floor of the carriage with a metallic thud. Alban kicked the bandit away from the entrance and grabbed the sword, the point of which he put to the throat of the bandit. Slowly, Alban forced him out of the way as he stepped down from the carriage.
“Joan, lock the door!” Alban said calmly. Then he gruffly barked out, “I wish to speak to the leader of you bandits, or I’ll slit this man’s throat!”
Most of the men just stood there in a stupor. Finally, Alban realized that he was speaking the wrong language, and repeated his demands in their tongue.
One of the men that were standing behind Alban’s hostage kicked him in the back, sending him towards Alban in order to distract him. Alban pulled the sword back from the man’s neck, and swung it in time to block the aggressor’s blow from above. He moved in and grabbed the very end of the hilt and, pulling it towards himself, loosed the man’s grip on the sword which flipped back and wounded its owner as it cut his shoulder badly. Because this made the attacker let go of the sword in an unsuccessful attempt to dodge the oncoming blow, Alban now had two swords with which to work.
Work he did, for five or six men came at him just then, though not all at once, due to Alban’s quick foot work which he used to make sure that he kept some of the men between him and the rest of the murderous lot. That made it impossible for them to come at him in any way in which they could make good use of their advantage in number. Though Alban had no choice but to defend himself and Joan from this vicious onslaught, he tried not to kill any of them, just wound them enough that they would stop their advance.
A second smaller wave came at him. They met with the same result. A third and much larger wave than the first was readying itself with talk of their chief not letting them live if they should fail, anyway. Just then, their chief rode up. As they did not wish to be seen as weak before their leader, they began to attack.
“Wait!” yelled the chief, as he saw Alban. “He is not to be touched!”
The members of the third wave looked around in both surprise and relief. There was some confused mumbling among them, but none had really wanted to advance.
“Do you not see how he is dressed? And yet he also wears a slave’s armband! Is this not the slave king that I told you about who has haunted my dreams? I told you that he would be wearing a blue shirt and a red robe!” stated the chief. Then he added, “That robe was red before all of this started, right?”
“Yes. It definitely was.” replied Alban, who looked first at the chief and then at his own surroundings for the first time with any real detail.
The chief looked shocked as he offered, “I did not know that you could speak our language. I find that out of sorts with the dream. In the dream that I had, you were a foreigner.”
“I am not from these parts, dear sir.” responded Alban.
“And yet you speak the language very well, including the accent, the manners long lost to these men, and fine pleasantries.” The chief thought for a moment and then remembered something, “If you are the slave king, there will be a lovely maiden with you!”
“Neither shall you touch her, nor the coach! I have sworn an oath to protect them both and I am bound to that promise!”
“Ah! There it is. This is the man from my dream! Those are the exact words that I heard him utter as I dreamt these many nights; and I have told no man of this. Put away your weapons, he will do you no harm. Well, no further harm, anyway.” the chief said to his men. Then he said to Alban, “You may bring her out. If we should want to do you harm we could not, as you have seen. We all have seen that. We are your servants; we will do whatever you see fit with us. According to legend, you are protected by the unknown God of your people.”
As the bandit leader said those last words about the God of his people, Albans heart felt something strangely powerful. He didn’t know if he had felt that way before, but it entered into his very core and seemed to brighten every corner of his being. He felt a peaceful fire burning in his heart that seemed inextinguishable. In the entire bandit’s deception, this was the truth that might have made the rest of the ruse seem right. However, Alban still knew that he must do something to get free of this predicament.
“Call off your raid on the caravan. Then we will talk.”
The chief nodded to a nearby soldier (the one who tried to kill his fellow soldier to gain the advantage over Alban). The soldier nodded back, then ran to his horse and mounted it.
Alban called to him as he was about to sink spur, “Bring Ryan to me alive, and I may spare you all.”
The rider went off in a cloud of dust. Alban watched him intently as he rode out of the bowl shaped rock formation. There were steep cliff walls carved out by the wind against the deep green sandstone. It ran all the way around them except for the narrow entrance whose floor sloped up and around the corner from view. There was no sign of vegetation, and there was just a skiff of sand lining the stone floor. Alban looked up around the whole formation at the top of the walls and then back at the chief. The chief had a flash of nerves come across his face that only confirmed what Alban had suspected. Suddenly, Alban realized that there was more that needed to be done in order to get Joan and the wagon free from this trouble.
“Please . . . let us make you more comfortable!” dissimulated the leader, as he walked toward Alban. “Put away your swords. You are among friends now.”
“I should like that your men draw back a few paces, and then we can talk.”
“Ah, yes.” the chief said, as he motioned for all to withdraw. Those that could did. “Now, we have shown our good intentions toward you. Now, please, put down your swords that we may speak.”
Alban’s newly acquired swords stayed at the ready, pointing right at the chief’s throat, but the desert dweller kept walking toward him. Alban kept one sword up, but pulled it in closer to his body in order to give the chief some room to advance. Finally, Alban slowly let that sword turn downward toward the ground as he dropped the one in his left hand.
As he did, the desert bandit made a quick motion with his hand. Alban instinctively stepped in with his left and caught the bandit’s hand as it grabbed the hilt of his sword. In the meantime, Alban had brought the sword in his right hand back to the throat of the bandit. His opponent grabbed at the blade, but Alban twisted it in his hand. Even through his thick leather gloves, the man’s hand was cut quite badly. Then he put his sword’s point right up to and, in fact, slightly into the neck of his artificial ally. Blood began to trickle out from the area, and onto the white silk shirt that the bandit had obviously stolen.
“Call off your men, please.” Alban requested softly.
“But I already had!”
Alban gave a look that showed how funny he thought that comment was.
“All of you leave us now!” yelled the bandit at the top of his lungs, at which his men began to mount up.
“You know that I am not talking about them! Keep them where they are!” growled Alban, in deep, murderous tones.
It wasn’t until this point that the chief’s eyes showed any flicker of fear, but at that display by Alban, they grew so wide that they nearly touched each other. Then, Alban noticed something peculiar. Those wide eyes cast about and turned down to the ground.
“You’re not the man that I thought you were.” said the bandit, thinking that Alban would not understand Effulgian.
“Then, whom did you expect?” answered Alban back, in Effulgian as well, nearly sending the bandit into shock.
Alban continued, “Leave those men down here where they are! I want you to bring each and every man down from those cliffs, or you’ll have howled your last desert yelp, you boarve!”
“Get down here now!” screamed the leader in horror. “Just do it!” Then, in another tongue which Alban again understood, he whispered, “You are not the ones that I thought you were.”
Alban heard some scuffling of stone on stone and the occasional clamor of pebbles falling down the stone walls. Soon five men filed through the narrow opening in the rock face, their weapons abandoned.
“Do you think me a fool?” raved Alban. “I want all of them down here before I count to ten, or I’ll cut through you all like wet parchment! . . . NOW!”
A second volley of clamors and pebble strike rose from all around them. This time, around twelve to fifteen men filtered through the narrow passage.
“Now, all of you will kindly drop your remaining weapons, and remove yourselves to the wall opposite the entrance.”
Alban looked up at the walls on either side of the entrance, and saw that on the left side there was a large pillar. The side looked relatively flat on top.
Taking the chief by the collar, Alban turned him so that the bandits could all see the woefulness on their leader’s face, as well as the blood trickling down his chest. It had just the effect that was necessary to keep them at bay. With the sword at the man’s throat, Alban urged him up the side of the carriage and into the carriage’s seat, where he joined his captured foe. He had made sure that the left hand seat was open for him so that he would be sitting there as they exited the narrow passage.
“You shall drive, but I warn you that if there is any hint of trouble, this sword will tickle your ribs quite nicely.” counseled Alban.
“I suppose that I should not laugh at the prospect!” the captive stated with his voice trembling like that of a goat.
“Oh, you’ll squeal! It will just not be in delight!” cautioned Alban further. “Drive!”
“Yes, of course.” offered the bandit, as he picked up the reins, and urged the wagon forward.
He began to turn the rig about. He tried his best to avoid causing any more damage to those that had already been wounded by Alban’s skilled blade. He did run over one man’s finger. The man began to scream from the shock until he grasped that the soft sands of the desert floor and the wide rims of the wheels had saved his digit from severance or breakage by distributing the weight of the carriage over a large area. Finally, with the wagon turned fully about, the chief coaxed the team of horses forward and toward the opening between the bowl’s stone walls.
“Incidentally, I think that you should know that the man that you sent to stop the raid on the caravan will be hiding on the wall to the right with a bow. If you should like to live, you should call to him. Otherwise, he will put an arrow through your skull.”
“OoftHall?” the bandit protested. “He would never do a thing like that to me . . . Oh! Right! He might think that it should be you driving the carriage . . . OoftHall! It is I! . . . errr . . . uhhh . . . Don’t shoot! I’m coming out with the wagon.”
Alban stayed behind the bandit just in case the chief’s words had fallen on deaf ears, or in the off chance that there were further intricacies involved in the trap that had been sprung on the passing caravan. He could see the man’s left shoulder and head silhouette the sky as they entered into the passage. He caught the shimmer of light gleam off of the bow that he had fully drawn in anticipation of the possible shot. Alban decided not to give him any such chance; he leaned back a bit, so as to use his prisoner as a meat shield. He knew that an arrow shot from that type of bow (he couldn’t remember the name of the type of bow at the time) could easily penetrate far enough to get him in the process. It could at least wound him. He was just hoping that the would-be assassin valued the life of his leader enough that no shot be risked.
Alban kept the chief between this OoftHall and himself as they rode through the narrow path and his blade at the back of the chief. An arrow did come, but not in any way that threatened Alban. As the sun was no longer in his eyes, Alban saw it plainly as it flew straight at his captive. With a flick of his wrist, Alban knocked the projectile away, sending it to shatter upon the rock wall behind them.
“OoftHall, if I ever get out of this alive, I’ll have your head!” yelled the chief. He was about to embellish his threat, when he felt the blade right back at his lower ribs.
“I will cut your lungs out, if you don’t pick up the pace!” Alban informed, as they pulled out the other side of the passageway and out of OoftHall’s range of fire.
“But, of course!” said the desert thug. “We have a saying that goes, ‘One threat deserves another, until all are dead.’ It’s just desert humor.”
“You mean it is extremely dry, but dangerous?” Alban bantered.
“Oh! We usually just say that it is extremely dry, but I like the addition of the word ‘dangerous’.” laughed the man, possibly in truthful tones.
“Well, I thought about going somewhere with heat, but I decided that the whole encounter would only seem hot from my end; so, I went with dangerous.”
“You just saved my life!” said the bandit, pausing his words afterwards for about thirty seconds in deep thought. “You didn’t really need to do that. You could have let it hit me, grab the reins, and head out of the gate. Yes, there is a gate. It is just well hidden. Anyway, I guess that I am trying to figure out the proper way of thanking you.”
“Well, we are not totally clear yet!” replied Alban. “Let’s get through this last bit, and then we can talk.”
“Right! There should be a remnant of fighters returning from the train. It was a decoy to make the caravan think that we were weak, but since the wagon needed rescue, they would feel safe to come and regain control of it. You saw our setup in the bowl there. How did you know, by the way? I mean, about the archers?”
“It is how I would have used the landscape, were I a thief or captain of an army, for that matter. It does rely on subterfuge, but it could work much better if the supply wagon were to be taken first.”
“That was the original plan. I think that we were discovered too soon for it to work. Was that your doing, as well?”
“I guess it was.” admitted Alban. “We were stopped and arguing about . . . something . . . and I saw the dust stirred up from the other side of the dune. But, you are dissimulating. How is it that you knew about the girl? Oh! You must have been watching us.”
“No! That was really part of a recurring dream I have had since about two months ago. I saw . . .”
Ryan rode up just then with a sizable force accompanying him. He saw Alban with the sword at the chief’s back coming to meet them. His jaw dropped wide open in awe.
“We thought that this was some sort of elaborate scheme designed to fool us into some type of trap.” explained Ryan, until he saw the blood covering Alban’s clothes and face. “You look like you have been in some epic battle!”
“If I may be so bold . . .” began the thief in their language, though in a heavy accent, “It was epic, indeed! This young man took on around nine of my best men, in what must have been different waves . . . I’d imagine! I guess that I only saw the end of the battle. I have only seen fighting like that once in all my life, and I have seen a great many battles in my time. He even managed to capture me! The best fighter of the group is the one that takes charge and, until now, I was the best fighter in this desert.”
“The bulk of them are in the bowl-shaped formation on the other side of this passageway. There is no exit, but through here, unless ropes or ladders have been lowered. There is at least one archer with a steel bow that is on the rock walls above. Some came into the bowl disarmed, but most that remain inside, if not all, have weapons.” reported Alban.
“Galandetra’s Whistle! You continue to amaze me, Alban.” replied Ryan. “I suppose that we should block off the entrance first.”
“As I was telling . . . Alban, is it?”
Both Ryan and Alban shrugged their shoulders.
“Well . . .” continued the thief, uncertain as to why they had shrugged, “As I was telling this young man, there is a gate that can be shut to keep them in there. As it was made to shut victims in, it should prove a good device to keep thieves as well.”
“Who . . . ? What . . . ? Never mind! Show us how to lock them in!” ordered Ryan.
The bandit got down from the wagon, and ran over to Ryan.
“Do you see that tree over there? There is a lever behind it which causes the door to fall. The only way to open it is with a team of oxen or greater pulling the reset rope from the outside pulley system. Once we trap them in there, we can take the pathway that runs up to the rock walls, and they will surrender there or die.”
Ryan looked at Alban, who nodded approval of the plan. He seemed so sure of himself that Ryan decided to risk it. He gave the order to have a man with a crossbow accompany the thief, and make sure that the entrance was secured. Soon after, there was a huge thud as the door slammed to the ground. A man could be heard to scream in pain briefly and then all fell silent. Ryan threw Alban a crossbow and a quiver of bolts. He was about to ask him if he knew how to use one, but the blood that was all over his new friend made his question seem ridiculous, so, he decided again to trust Alban.
They wound their way around the steep path and soon found themselves at the top of the rock wall. OoftHall was not there anymore, which sent the hairs on the back of Alban’s neck to stand on end, but he proceeded to lead the party. Just ahead, he could see the opening of the bowl below, and that at the top was OoftHall, aiming that same metal bow at the trail in anticipation of a victim. Alban stopped and tried to get Ryan’s attention, but he did not catch on. Just as the arrow was loosed, Alban darted in front of Ryan and pushed him to the ground. The arrow let out a loud “TWANG!”, as it struck the crossbow that Alban was holding. The two scrambled to take cover behind a boulder along the path. OoftHall sent another arrow that smashed against the rock. It was obviously in an attempt to suppress any advance by the party. It worked wonders on Ryan who was discombobulated, to say the least.
Alban peeked around the boulder almost immediately. He saw OoftHall holding a rope down for others to climb up. Alban aimed and let a bolt fly. It sailed high of his mark, which was the hand with the rope, but it hit OoftHall in the upper left portion of his chest. He teetered for a moment and then fell skidding down the green sandstone wall as he neared the bottom. As the party drew nearer, they could see that the rope that OoftHall was about to pull up, was fastened to the end of a rope ladder. Ryan gave the order for his men to spread all out along the rock wall. As the men below realized that they were trapped, they began to put their weapons down.
Alban asked their chief, “Do you have any type of physician that could see to their wounds?”
“Just Whillhold. He sets bones and pulls teeth, but that’s about it.”
“Ryan, do you think that Decebal would allow the use of his surgeon?”
“You could try.” was the response.
“I will be right back.” offered Alban to the chief.
Soon, Alban had slipped back down the trail to the wagon where Joan waited nervously in the cabin. Alban tried to open the carriage door, but it was locked from the inside.
“Joan? Are you alright?” asked Alban softly.
“Yes.” said a soft, crackly voice.
“Good. I will have you back to your . . . father in no time. I just need to check the wheels first.”
Alban slowly circled the wagon, kicking each wheel as he went, more to make noise than to actually test anything. He wound his way to the other side of the wagon and quickly snuck a peek through the other window. He almost expected to find someone there with Joan, but she seemed to be the only one there.
“Are you sure that you’re alright?” he asked again.
“Yes. I just seem to have screamed myself hoarse.” she half whisper-screamed.
“Well, hang on.”
Alban climbed up to the wagon seat and grabbed the reins. He gently slapped the horses with the reins to start them forward. They strained for a moment and then stopped pulling when the wagon wouldn’t move. Alban slapped the reins harder. He could hear Joan trying to say something, but it was lost in the wind. Finally Alban carefully moved the brake lever so as to make no noise. It creaked a lot louder than he had wanted. The horses obviously heard it, because all four lit out at a trot, sending Alban reeling back a bit. He recovered, and they were on their way.
He was a bit unsure about where to go, but he saw a cloud of green dust rising from the desert floor about a half mile up the dunes. Soon he was on the tracks that the wagon had made on the descent during their detention. It took some coaxing to get the horses to pull the wagon back up the dune, but at last Alban found himself right at the spot where the wagon was initially seized. He looked to the peak of the high dune where the caravan was to have encircled about, but there were not even tracks that led to or from it. In fact, the great width of the brass wheels which were designed for the specific use of passing over sand had left tracks that were visible for a much greater distance than normal wheels’ tracks. To Alban’s dismay, the tracks led down the slopes of the dunes to the valley floor below.
The caravan was miles ahead. They had made good time. Alban figured that the dust must have been from the breeze. He stopped the wagon and got down from the driver’s seat. He went to the door of the carriage and knocked on it, hearing sobs coming from the inside but no answer.
“Joan . . . Joan!” Alban called as he continued knocking. “Joan, let me in.”
“Go away!” she screeched.
“Joan, I am not angry. You did what you had to do. You lured me into the trap that others had set for me. I understand.” Alban said in a soft, kind voice.
“What?!” came the screech from Joan’s mouth, as she flung the door open in anger. “You think that I had something to do with that?”
“Of course not, my dear lady. I know that you could never stoop to doing something so devious, but it got you to open the door.” said Alban, smiling slyly.
Joan looked at Alban in disbelief. Great big tears welled up in her eyes, and streamed down her delicate cheeks.
“There! You did it again!” she sobbed. “How do you do that? My whole world seems shattered. My father has run off and left me to die in the desert, you instantly believe my word (though everything would appear to be a lie), and then you smile with those eyes, and . . . and everything is even better than before!”
“I hope that it comforts you, dear lady. I mean only to do so.”
“Perhaps, but you still have an eternal friend in me.”
“That is precisely how I was able to do it. There is an old adage that goes, ‘That which is given out in kindness soon returns to the soul as strength.’ You are my friend, and a true one at that. I only wish to repay the kindness and devotion that you have shown to me.” Alban admitted.
“Well, what do you think that we should do now?” asked the hoarse whisperer.
“We’ll continue on and get help for Ryan and the physician for the wounded.”
Joan sat down in the doorway of Ryan’s wagon. A shadow of darkness wavered from her eyes. Alban didn’t know from where it came, but he recognized it, just the same.
“Look, I know that he’s not your father. I could tell by the way he looked at you when he saw you tending to me. It wasn’t a look that a father gives his daughter whom he loves, but is worried that she may be making a mistake in getting close to someone like me; it was one that showed that he was unhappy with how circumstances may reflect upon him. What is going on? Really . . . I want to help.”
“I can’t tell you. I am sorry. You will have to trust me.”
“Oh, Joan, it is he whom I do not trust.” Alban said in a kind, hushed tone. “When you trust me fully, I will be waiting to help you. Apparently, I am one with whom to be reckoned.” Then, after a good pause, he added, “Do you suppose that the bandit chief was right, that I am protected by my people’s god? I guess it would help to know who my people are.”
“I’ve got to tell you; I have never seen anyone fight like that in my life! It was as though you knew what to do even before it happened. You would dodge and block blows that seemed to come too slowly for you. It was as though . . . I once saw a play in which there was a battle scene. The lead actor was playing the role of Perfecles, a fictional character that was perfect in war. That actor knew his role really well; and he continually had to wait for the others to attack him so that he could defend their blows. You did the same thing . . . waited for them to make their moves.”
“Yes. That’s what I mean. How could I have ever known what was going to happen? Yet I did! I could see every move before it should play out even down to the treachery that the bandit chief tried to pull. It was as though I had dreamed it all before, but remembered it just before it should happen. I found my limbs all working in a coordinated manner that was almost . . . frightening.”
“Well, it sure gave them a good fright!” laughed Joan.
“True.” Alban chuckled. He continued in a sort of daze, “But as the fighting started, I was a fit of nerves. I said a small prayer in my heart, and I was as calm as the waters of Lake HePing. I knew that everything was going to turn out absolutely fine! I knew it, and it filled me with a hope that gave way to joy. I felt so alive! I could feel the unmistakable sensation that I was preserved for something more.”
“By the way, how is it that I woke up in Ryan’s wagon, instead of in . . . CoAgulon’s? Was that his name? CoAgulon? Why was I not in his camp?”
“Why would you be?” asked Joan.
“He talked about a slave that was lost. I have only been with you for a short time. Plus, there was the fact that the slave in question knew how to cook. I figured that it was I for whom he searched.”
“Yes. To tell the truth, so had I. I tried to distract everyone from searching in Ryan’s . . . or this wagon, but when they had shoved me aside and searched in the cab, they came back out, shaking their heads. CoAgulon said that he knew the young man from his youth and he knew that this was not the man for whom they were searching, as he was much too well built. Then he threatened Decebal with his life for losing the slave. He just bartered money for the same.”
“Decebal bought his life back from CoAgulon?” Alban asked in earnest.
“Yes.” Joan replied, a bit upset at having to clarify her statements, as she thought that she had been clear enough.
“I just wanted to be sure.” Alban explained any contention away (he hoped). “What reason did they give for leaving me there in the cab, then?”
“Like I said, CoAgulon mentioned that he knew the lost prince, and that you were definitely not he!” Joan replied. “Either you are not the man for whom they were looking, or you were again spared by Divinity.”
Alban turned then, looked Joan right in the eye, and said, “And you. You, too, were preserved for a reason! Even though Decebal had left you to die, you were saved alive for a purpose. What that purpose is, I do not know. Perhaps you do.”
Joan’s head slunk down at those last words of Alban. Tears began to well up in her eyes.
“Joan, you must know by now that you can trust me. If you can trust anyone, it is I. What is going on? Who is Decebal to you, and why have you put on this big ruse?”
“Alright, Alban, of all people, you deserve to know. The reason that I have . . .” Joan grew quiet again as she looked past Alban.
Just then, Ryan came riding up. “I forgot to tell you that the company moved on. Decebal has this policy: that if we are attacked by thieves in these desert plains, then it is every man for himself. He doesn’t think that it is a good idea to stand our ground and fight them on our terms. He never fights, just runs. What a coward!”
“Well, actually, he may be correct in that line of thinking. If the company outruns them, they get nothing. If not, then perhaps, they may pick off a few stragglers.” Alban offered.
“True, but if we were to stop as you suggested, we could make a better stand than to be picked off or headed and slaughtered down the road a ways. If it came down to it, we could even arm the slaves.”
“Now, Ryan, I do not know Decebal very well, but it now occurs to me that a pack of thieves that should like to take the whole of a slaver company would only need to sell loyal slaves to that same company. Then they would have eyes and ears on the inside, as well as a way to slow the train down. They could cause all sorts of problems for the slavers. And then, should they arm them, how do you suppose that they could reclaim those weapons after the battle without loss of men and merchandise? Your heart is obviously not in slaving. What are you doing working for Decebal?”
Ryan shifted in his saddle. He looked about as if to think a while.
“It’s a woman, isn’t it?” teased Joan. “You’re trying to earn enough to impress a woman and marry her!”
Ryan’s face flashed bright red and his gaze fell to the dust. He stared for a brief while. Finally, he looked up.
“I guess that it shows.” Ryan began. “I just think that the whole venture has been a total loss. The woman that I love has no feelings for me. I must have thought that there was something between us that never was, for she doesn’t seem to listen to me now.”
“I am sure that can’t be true!” said Joan. “I’m sure that if she would just get to know . . .”
“She loves another man!” interrupted Ryan in forcefully subdued tones. “I have tried to catch her eye, but I could be but feet from her and still she would speak to my conversation, but never my heart. My will goes out to her, only to receive her ‘won’t’. It’s just one of life’s magical ironies, I guess.”
“That was most eloquently put, my heartbroken friend.” stated Alban with a wry smile. Then, to change the subject he added, “If what you say is true about Decebal’s orders, and I know that you always speak the truth however painful it may be, I suppose that the company will not stop for a good, long while.”
“No. It could take better than a half day to reach them. What do you think that we should do?” asked Ryan.
“Well, we had better get back to the men and decide what to do with the bandits. Their leader seemed a bit . . . accommodating. Maybe we should have a good talk with him.” remarked Alban.
They rode back to the area where the trap had been sprung. Well, technically, Alban drove the wagon where Joan was resting as Ryan rode beside them. They took their time because they knew that it was useless to try catching the traveling train, until such time that Decebal were confident that the bandits had given up trying to follow them. As they neared the gate of the natural pen, there was a clamor that arose. Alban climbed down from the carriage and ran to the gate. Another skirmish had broken out. Arrows and stones were being hurled in all directions. From above, the men that had been left in order to keep the bandits in captivity were able to pick men off with ease. The bandits, however, had a tougher time of it. They had been reduced significantly in number.
“Enough!” yelled Alban in a voice like thunder. Said “thunder” was reinforced and amplified by the shape of the basin. All that could see him stopped and turned to see Alban standing there. “Lower your weapons!” he continued.
All men from both sides lowered their weapons and waited for further instruction.
“Bring us the bandit leader!” Ryan commanded.
“Yes, sir!” answered a nearby guard. “Bring us the bandit leader!”
Ryan just looked at him. It was an expression that told all exactly what he was thinking of the guard, so much so as to make the guard shift about in uneasiness.
“Why don’t I just go and get him?” the guard suggested.
“No. I want a competent man to go and get him!” Ryan snapped back.
“I’ll go.” Alban offered.
Ryan returned, “No. I think that you should be staying right at that gate to keep things calm. I’ll go and fetch him round. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Ryan walked toward the trail that led to the flat ledges overlooking the basin. He asked a man something who, in turn, pointed to two men bringing the bandit leader down the slope of the trail. Ryan nodded in approval. Soon the men were at the gate.
Before anyone could say anything, the thief blurted out, “Tell the men to put down their arms and no harm will come to them.”
Ryan laughed, “I will do no such thing! You are in my hands now.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.” said the prisoner. “I was talking to the Slave King!” Then he looked right at Alban and, in a voice of humble seriousness, said, “I thought once that the legend was a tale told by slaves to give themselves some kind of hope for freedom, that they were recounting the words to the ancient songs sung by the wandering tribes. Yet something deep inside had always wanted to believe that the songs were true . . . that the warring states should be given unity to last a hundred years . . . I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you get out of that carriage, dressed just like the song said . . .”
“You believe that he is some sort of king?” asked Ryan.
“I guess that I do. It is just as the song said, that ‘the prince shall rise from a slave to a king; he shall conquer all foes, thieves, and armies alike’! ”
Alban had an idea. “If you lay down your arms, no further harm will come to you.” he said to the bandits, who complied with his request. Then he said to Ryan, “Tell the men to leave off killing them until we figure this whole thing out.”
Ryan nodded to the guards that had brought the bandit to them. Those guards turned and went back up the trail to where the men had the thieves surrounded.
“When are we leaving for Darv . . .” one of them began to ask as they left.
“We never were going to . . .” started Ryan, but trailed off mid-sentence.
“Now.” began Alban. “Let us all calmly talk this whole thing over.”
“Yes, but let’s do it in the shade of the canopy of my carriage.” suggested Ryan.
“Agreed!” stated Alban. “Come. We should all go where we may discuss things more privately.”
The three of them turned and walked toward the wagon so as to be out of earshot of the rest of the men. Ryan rolled out a long piece of fabric which he attached to two sticks to hold the fabric stiff and then placed brackets between the sticks and the side of the carriage; it really did make quite the impressive canopy for shade. Then Ryan pulled a blanket down from the top of the carriage, spread it out on the ground, and asked his guests to sit and talk.
“I am Wafflestonks!” began the bandit chief.
“Wafflestonks?!” Alban and Ryan questioned simultaneously.
“Yes, though my . . . uhh . . . the men call me Cefús.”
“Cefús?” laughed Alban. “That means . . .”
“It means one who wears a disguise. It is Effulgian. How did you know its meaning?”
“You just told us that!” Ryan chuckled.
“Yes, but he laughed before I told you. How did you know?”
Alban thought as hard as he could, but nothing came to mind. To break the silence, Ryan offered, “He speaks every language that we have come across. In these parts that’s a handful or more.” Then he started chuckling.
“Any way, as I was saying, Wafflestonks is my name . . .” continued the bandit, while Ryan continued chuckling in the background . . . “just as it was my father’s before me. It is a name that may seem strange to these parts, but in my land, it is a very renowned name to be had. My father first made it so, and I try to follow in his footsteps. I am, indeed, your humble servant.”
Ryan’s laughter built to a frolicking roar. “Alban speaks a handful of languages! That’s like . . . Oh! I had it a minute ago. It was obviously very humorous! How did it go?” He looked at Alban as if he should know. When he only got raised eyebrows and shrugging shoulders, Ryan turned on him and in a playful manner said, “I guess you’re not so smart after all!”
All three started to laugh uncontrollably until tears came out of their eyes. One would be about to quit laughing and see that the others were still out of control, and the whole thing was back on again.
Alban was the first to gain control of himself. “Why are you not upset at having lost your leadership of this band?” he asked Wafflestonks.
“Well, I guess that the best answer that I could give you is that I am not really a thief.” began Wafflestonks. “I am actually an officer of the Court of Efffulgia. I was sent to infiltrate this band and spy on their movements. I became their leader quite by accident, as I was accused by their old leader of sending delicate information to the Darvanian Emperor. As I had sent no information (to them, at least) I proclaimed my innocence and was granted a Trial by Battle, which I won. I accidentally slayed him, and I became the leader. As you have surmised, by my having told you, the greatest warrior is he who retains leadership. Normally, from what I gather, there would be an open challenge for anyone to seek the chieftain position where you did not slay me, but, under the circumstances, that must wait for a future opportunity since captivity hardly affords such protocol.”
“Wait! You mean to tell me that . . . Alban is now the leader of the Thieves of Verdis GranSecas? Impossible! He is a slave!”
“You will find, sir, that the majority of the ranks are led by escaped slaves, and some of them you will probably recognize!” replied Wafflestonks. “They have been found to love their freedom a whole lot more than the run of the mill thief. At least, the ones that were ever free before being enslaved are so. Many born into slavery have such a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that they can and must think for themselves; it makes it nearly impossible for them to truly enjoy freedom. Since most slaves can neither read nor write, it is a hard sale. They know nothing of history or government. Without such notions, how can they govern themselves?
“You, however . . . Alban, is it? You have obviously tasted great freedom. You are skilled with a blade, speak a handful of languages, and you are quick to understand people and circumstance within a strange culture. All of these denote a great freedom that has been taken from you. But there is a quiet reserve of strength that eludes even the majority of freemen. I thought that I should never find it in any that were not from Effulgia. Have you ever been there?”
“He would not know the answer to that question. He can’t even remember anything past . . . oh . . . about a week and a half ago.” Ryan chimed in.
Wafflestonks had a deeply amazed look flash on his face at hearing that last bit of information. He began to tell a story, “There was an ancient story that told of a wandering young man troubled with memories of things far away. There was a song sung for centuries about this man who would be pivotal in the grand scheme of the world and its history. Some said that it was written by a holy man of old. Others believed that it was merely an old wives’ tale put to music by some traveling muse. Anyway, as the story goes . . .”
“That is what the ‘Legend of the Slave King’ is all about.” said Wafflestonks, the ex-chieftain of the bandits, after reciting and sometimes even singing the words to the ancient song.
He continued, “When I saw you step out of that carriage dressed just like the king from the legend, I thought at first that it may be some sort of practical joke. However, I did take particular notice when you made my best men look like imp monkeys. Still, I thought that it could be part of a deception and that perhaps you had set up the whole scene ahead of time so as to fool us all into believing in the legend. Not all of my thieves are constructed of the highest moral fiber, and there have been a great many that have gone to elaborate means to mislead the masses, I am told. I thought that perhaps this was another attempt to assume control of the band. That is why I had to test you.”
“Let me tell you, you surely do play the part of a bandit quite convincingly!” offered Alban. “I was quite sure that you were a sly bandit trying to mask murderous intentions as you sauntered up to me.”
“Well, such was indeed my intent to portray. It was, indeed my job to do so. I meant only to lead the whole band into a trap that I would have set later on. It is actually quite convenient that you stumbled upon us like you did, and were able to lock us in like that.”
“Well, now it falls to us to explore the possibilities that concern what we should like to do with this band. Your story seems legitimate; but, then again, (and by your own admission) you have been in the practice of lying in order to lead these men into a trap. With all due respect, how are we to know that you are not doing so now with us? It seems to me that a tactician of any worth at all should have had a better plan than to take all of the men in his command and put them in the same location during a battle. There must be more of you that are hidden somewhere. Where are they?” asked Alban.
“Yeah!” Ryan agreed. “Or did you, in your dream, have men that appeared out of nowhere?”
“Amazing!” Wafflestonks howled as Alban began to laugh with Ryan. “I thought that we had become great friends in this short while — and I have been quite forthcoming in this whole matter. Now you mock me with your laughter? You are also good at masking your true intent, Alban.” returned Wafflestonks.
“You’re wrong! I do truly appreciate Ryan’s good humor. However, I do not appreciate your attempt to divide our unity. In spite of our differences and, even while I was unconscious for a few days, Ryan has shown himself to be quite trustworthy. That is what I like the most about him. In fact, I like all that is good within a person. I also should not like to fall into another of your traps. ‘Trust is an earned commodity, my friend; it cannot be stolen if one gives it solely upon merits of true virtue. Said virtue cannot go against the commands of God.’ So it is written by the prophet.”
“You supposedly cannot remember your own identity, and yet you can quote from the Holy Writ?” grilled Wafflestonks. Then he added sarcastically, “How credible is that?”
“I believe him. That is enough for me and for any man within this slaver company.” reported Ryan.
“You believe him?”
“Yes I do! His word is better than that of a thief, especially the ring leader. You go on about some legend that, quite frankly, you had to sing to remember some of the words, and even then, they didn’t rhyme. You probably made up half of it — especially the part about being kind to the great bandit chieftain! Your voice got lower, and you might as well have been speaking cow, because I couldn’t understand you.” explained Ryan again to Alban’s laughter.
“I was translating!” claimed the bandit. “Alban, tell him that it can be hard to translate poems and songs into another language!”
“Indeed it is!” began Alban. “Words and phrases that convey deep and powerful meanings in one culture can seem drivel to the next. Sometimes a known historical event must be known in order to understand the speaker. Other times it could be slang or jargon had among a certain trade or way of life that confuses the issue. Literature can have a deep impact on language, as well. An idea expressed by an author in one language may have been built upon one or more of the devices that I have just mentioned, which when taken further, conveys still another and even deeper meaning. Plays on words, puns, and the like make it even more difficult to translate. It then becomes nearly impossible to get the pure meaning of certain phrases and idioms.
“That part of your story does ring true, Wafflestonks. Ryan, I still do not know what we shall do with this man and his band, but he is not telling the whole truth. He has changed parts of the story. For one thing, in the song, the Slave King personally beheads the Chief of Thieves. There were other major flaws in his summary of the legend. Certain things were added and others taken away, probably more for purpose of convenience than anything else.”
Ryan began, “Then, you can rest assured that there is foul play afoot! . . . Well, maybe not rest . . .”
“We can all be sure that there is foul play at hand?” Alban suggested.
“Yes! Precisely! Now we’re getting somewhere.” Ryan recovered.
Alban laughed, growing more serious as he spoke, “Not really. We are still in the middle of the desert with very little supplies —or water, for that matter. We also have to decide what it is that we should do with these bandits. I do not believe that this be the whole of their forces. We must set a trap. We can use this man as the bait.”
“As bait for whom?” asked Wafflestonks. “I have told you the truth. There are no others coming to rescue us.”
Alban sat looking at the man. His look showed how much he trusted him.
“Bring us the one that they call OoftHall. We shall see if this man is telling the truth.” Alban said at length.
Ryan got up and went to send for the man. For the second time, he realized that Alban was the one giving the orders. He didn’t mind this time in the least. That struck him as extremely odd, but he kept going on his errand. Soon OoftHall was before the three.
“Set him down right by Wafflestonks.” he said to the guards that carried him.
They put him down, but found that he just flopped in a heap, unconscious.
“That wasn’t the thing that you wanted to happen, was it?” teased Ryan.
“Bring us some water!” Alban ordered one of the guards.
The guard looked at Ryan who nodded in turn. So, the guard went to fetch some water.
“Oh! There is some here in my wagon!” Ryan chimed. “We’ll just use some of it.”
“Never mind.” yelled Alban to the guard. Then to the other guard he said, “You’re dismissed.”
This guard didn’t even look at Ryan; he just left. Ryan noticed it, but said nothing.
When both guards were out of range of hearing, Alban took the canteen from Ryan, and walked over to OoftHall. He gave him a small sip of water. It was just enough to make him want more. It had the desired effect, for soon OoftHall’s eyes were open as he looked about for more water.
“You’ll receive more water when you answer my questions.” began Alban. “First of all, why did you try to kill Wafflestonks as we left the basin?”
“Who?” asked OoftHall.
“You don’t need to worry, OoftHall. I have told them my real name!” dissimulated Wafflestonks.
“Huh? Oh, right.” replied OoftHall, thinking to continue a deception, but covering most badly. “Good . . . errr, uhhh . . . Waffles . . . gonks!”
“I will only repeat myself this last time, and then I will have you killed most slowly. Why did you try to kill this man?”
“Uhhh . . . I was trying to kill you.” he replied.
“That may be the case, but you were willing to go through him to attempt it. Why? Did you think to make yourself the leader of this band?”
“What? That’s not how a leader is chosen in our culture!”
“Then just how is it done?” asked Ryan impatiently. When no answer could be invented, Alban continued, “For whom was Wafflestonks waiting?”
OoftHall looked over at Wafflestonks as if his eyes could tell him some elaborate scheme to get them out of the predicament in which they found themselves; he looked in vain. Wafflestonks’ face displayed the epitome of full amazement. If OoftHall had hoped for any encouragement, that hope was dashed to powder. At that, OoftHall’s eyes widened a bit more and a look of self-pity came over his face. Alban thought that he saw his upper lip quiver a bit, but decided that it could also just be from the pain in his upper chest or lower shoulder as the debate might be. The arrow had been pulled, but the wound was only bandaged, and would have to be cauterized because it was still bleeding quite profusely. It was lucky that no major vessels were ruptured, or the man would already be dead.
“This man must have his wound dressed properly or he will bleed out!” suggested Alban.
“Do you know how to do it?” asked Ryan.
“I guess that I do. We need to send this Wafflestonks back with the other thieves, get a fire going, and find some iron of some sorts to use . . . a poker or the likes. We will also need to heat the poker up enough to burn out all impurities and stop the bleeding. In the meantime, we have to make sure that he get plenty of fluids and that he rest.” began Alban. “If not done correctly, the burn alone can kill a man. He will need his strength to endure the pain and hardship on his body.”
“True.” Ryan agreed. “I have seen greater men with lesser wounds die from the shock of it all.”
“Perhaps, but it is usually because the cure was worse than the ailment. If the poker be left too long in the wound, the effect that it should leave can destroy good flesh or eventually get infected and cause greater problems for a victim. Such infection can kill a man. It can also leave him without use of the muscles underneath. The heat kills them and there is no remedy. On the other hand, if the wound is not burnt enough, the whole treatment can be in vain, as the man will bleed out and die in more pain. However, when all goes well, the wound heals in a nice scar, and the man should have full use of his faculties again.”
At hearing the part about the burn doing more harm at times, OoftHall had gone out cold. That was fine with Alban. As he had stated, his patient needed his rest. If they could get the poker hot enough before he should wake, it would be easier to perform the operation. Squirming and thrashing could cause that the wound be missed entirely for a nice brand somewhere else, or that the poker go in too deeply, causing the problems that had already been addressed by Alban.
When the fire was prepared and the poker glowing red, Alban had some men tear the shirt away from the wound and hold his legs and arms, just in case the patient should awaken as the procedure was under way. There was also the off chance that OoftHall was simply playing fang squirrel. You know, acting as if he were dead, only to spring on its prey in a surprise attack. In either case, they would be prepared.
Alban grabbed the poker from the fire and walked over to the men. He hesitated only to make sure of proper alignment. He decided to forget the poker.
“Since there is not all that much blood coming out of the wound now, it should be able to hold with a stitch or two.” he thought to himself.
He called for a needle and thread to be brought. He was quite surprised when he quickly had the wound closed and bandaged. He was also very pleased with his handy work.
“Why, that would do nicely on any quilt!” Ryan quipped to the laughter of all of the men present.
“Indeed it would!” Alban agreed. “Next, I’ll mend your sweater.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ryan.
“There is a hole in that sweater that you always wear under that vest. Maybe an arrow got too close. Anyway, I’ll mend it.”
The men roared. You see, they all knew that there were men with hair, hairy men, and then again, there was Ryan; he put sheep to shame. Ryan kept asking, “What sweater?” as if he had no idea at what they were laughing. He even scratched his chest as he asked it a few times. This only coaxed out the men’s total loss of control over their laughter. So, it took a while for the laughter to die down.
As the final chuckles were being chucked, Alban suggested that they talk in private and that two or three guards be set about the wagon to guard Joan from harm. Ryan sent four. When they were alone Alban said, “We do need to decide what to do about the prisoners, as night will be upon us shortly.”
“Yes.” Ryan approved. “Whatever we do, Decebal likely has a greater lead on us by now, and without supplies. . . That Wafflestonks has me baffled, though.”
“How so?” Alban inquired.
“Well, it’s like you said. He has either made a grave mistake in sending all of his men into the trap, or he has a bigger trap that is to be sprung later. It could easily be that he had planned on the whole caravan to turn and be trapped in the basin, but it’s doubtful.”
“It could be that he was telling the truth, that he is some sort of Effulgian spy who is trying to infiltrate the band, and was catapulted to the top by a series of events, fortunate or otherwise. Is there any reason to believe that we may have been mistaken for a different party, perhaps one from Effulgia or more likely Darvania?”
“That would make more perfect sense.” affirmed Ryan.
“That would explain why he was so surprised that I spoke Effulgian, even though I was not the man he expected, and why I took his sword so easily.”
“By the look of those men you took, you probably could have done that anyway. That must have been some phenomenal fighting! However, I do see your point. If we stay here too long, the real party may get here, if it exists.”
Alban looked at him earnestly and said, “I believe that it does. When I had captured Wafflestonks, he said under his breath (in Effulgian) that I was not the one he thought I was. Having said that, would we have anything to fear from the Effulgians?”
“Well, slavery is illegal in their land, but we have no slaves here . . . except you.”
“Ah. I had forgotten. I am still not used to it.”
“I have a shirt with sleeves that would cover that armband, though. And you were never branded because Decebal didn’t even think that you would make it through your injuries. If we keep the band covered and tell the men not to let on, we may be able to pull it off.”
“No. The men are to be told that the Effulgians detest the barbaric tongues and should be most offended by their speaking to them (which is . . . partly true.) Some Effulgians are that way. At any rate, I saw Nordholst among the men that came with you. His mind moves as slowly as the rest of him. He wouldn’t be able to keep up the ruse. I also believe that this may have been planned by Decebal and perhaps some of the men were in on it.”
“You think that Decebal was helping the Effulgians to catch . . . ?”
“No, no, no.” Alban interrupted. “I mean that he saw that Joan was with me, and he did not escort the wagon back to the rest of the train. I know that she is not his daughter, even though she did not tell me, nor will she tell me what is going on now. A real man would naturally escort any young woman during an attack to ensure her safety, and give his life if needed. A father would do much more for his own daughter.”
“Take care how you speak of the head of this caravan!” began Ryan.
“He is not here, and he left you for dead, too! Think on that a while.”
Ryan did just that. His face wore a serious shroud, but at length, it turned to an acknowledging grimace.
“I suppose that you’re right to some extent. Until we catch up with them, we are on our own, and, again, without much along the way of water or supplies.” Ryan said.
Camp was made ready for the night. All was in place by midafternoon, as was best possible, anyway. Alban decided to confer with Ryan again.
“You know, Ryan we may be in a compromised position, but we are not helpless. We must, however, decide what to do concerning these men that we have captive, and we will need more water if we are to get free of this desert.”
“Do you mean the men that I hold captive in the basin?” asked Ryan.
“My dear friend, Ryan, it was I who put those men into your hands in the first place. Also, according to Wafflestonks and to thief custom, they are my men. They may be at the disadvantage now, but they outnumber all of Decebal’s men that are with you now. What has gotten into you?”
“Nothing!” Ryan lied. “I am fine.” When he saw that the lies did not fool Alban, he added, “I just am tense at the prospect . . . of our predicament.”
“Yes, and what a fine prospect it is!” laughed Alban. “I agree that this is not the best of situations, but I cannot remember what the best could possibly be. I do know that life would be absolutely useless if it didn’t put us into situations where we are stretched a bit from time to time. See this as an opportunity to grow, my friend.”
“I just didn’t want to grow this big all at once!” chuckled Ryan.
Alban laughed too, but it was out of courtesy and by way of patching things up between the two. He had an idea as to why Ryan had suddenly gotten so upset, but now was hardly the time to settle things. “Ryan will have to be a man about it for now.” thought Alban to himself.
“At any rate, here we are! We’ll have to do something about getting out of here.” Ryan said.
“True.” Alban agreed.
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“There isn’t really much that we can do right now. If we leave these thieves behind, they will just climb out of that basin and come right at us again. Should we decide to continue waiting here, we will be able to hold these men. Maybe then, we could make a deal with the Effulgians and get our way clear of here.”
“Is that it? That is all that you can think of?” asked Ryan disappointedly.
“Well, the thought of my own freedom had occurred to me as something quite inviting. I could have easily assumed command of these thieves and gotten clear of here. I could be on my way to their lair or hold, what have they.”
“What is it that stopped you from becoming a runaway slave?”
“Ryan, it is simple. No matter who or what I was before I came into this type of life, I know what is right and what is wrong. We all really do, deep down inside. I simply have the luxury of not knowing anything else, right now. I did not want that for myself. While I do not hold to slavery, I could never live the life of a thief. I could never rob. It turns my stomach just thinking of it. But to murder to rob, that is much worse.”
“But you just cut up a handful or more!” rebutted Ryan.
Alban looked at Ryan in dismay, not because he did not want to explain himself, but because he should not have that to do. “That was honor!”
“It was an honor to slice them up because they are thieves?” sneered Ryan.
“No. I did it out of my sense of honor.” Alban began calmly, deflating Ryan’s aggression. “I had promised that I would bring your wagon back to you and I told . . . someone . . . Anyway, it had to be done. They attacked first! Self-defense is no crime. In fact, it is one’s duty. Do you find things otherwise?”
“No!” Ryan agreed quickly — too quickly for his own taste. Then he looked puzzled and let out, “Uhhhh . . .”
“Look, Ryan. I have been given such that I have been given. I cannot claim a past that is not in my memory. I have a clean slate, and I will take it and use it for good. I must do so in the event that my past is unfavorable . . . or, I guess, to continue that which was good about me. Should my memory be healed, I should very much like to prove to myself that I can be noble and great, no matter what has happened before.” Alban paused and looked at Ryan in the deep admiration of a great friend. “Do the same, my friend. Forget your past — whatever it was that makes you distrust or mistrust yourself. It may have gotten you where you are now, but it occurs to me that a man should be able to change his course whether or not he receive a blow to the head.”
“If I distrust myself so, then why should you want to be my friend?” quizzed Ryan.
“You are one of the only ones here that, in spite of your rhetoric, has treated me as anything more than a slave . . . or master, I guess.”
“Truth be told, I have never had such a good friend. You look after me and teach me even as (and especially when) I try to disconnect. You seem to understand me better than anyone else. I don’t get it.”
Alban smiled and said, “I have merely tried. That made all of the difference.”
“I guess so. Anyway, I suppose that what you surmise about the thieves is our best shot. That plan seems the best. There is just one thing that could stop its success.” he said.
Ryan turned and walked the fifty or so yards back to the wagon where he opened a tool box and dug out a pair of metal snips. He shortly returned and placed the jaws around Alban’s armband. He squeezed with all of his might and a brisk ping rang out as the armband popped. He pried at the two sides of the slit that was left by the snips and widened the band enough to let it slide down Alban’s arm. Alban caught it with his other hand.
“May I keep it?” asked Alban.
“Yes.” Ryan affirmed. “Keep it and your freedom. But why should you want to keep a symbol of your captivity?”
“It is not a symbol of my captivity!” Alban exclaimed. “It is the symbol of the freedom that friendship has afforded me!”
“Friendship, a freedom?” asked Ryan. “I had never thought of it that way. Besides, you did save my life back there.”
“Well, I meant only that our friendship is what brought about my freedom. But the more that I think about it, you are most certainly right about friendship being freedom. If one makes no friends, where is he? He has none upon which to rely. It does not matter how knowledgeable or strong a man may be, he will eventually find himself in a world of trouble from which he cannot spring himself.”
“Yes. An ally can make all the difference in the world, in a scrape.”
“No, Ryan, I am talking about friendship. Allies eventually will, when convenient, turn their loyalties from one faction to another. I speak of friendship. Friendship is hardly a thing of convenience. In fact, it can seemingly, at times, be outright detrimental to one’s fiscal or social situation. Being a true friend to others is one of the most important things that we can do while in this world. If we really want to get back to heaven, we have to become like God, or we will not be fit for his kingdom. How can we do that if we do not learn to help his children like he would have it done? Every new person that we meet is another opportunity to do so!”
“Is that it, Alban? Am I a pet project of yours?”
“What do you mean?” asked Alban, shocked at the possible rebuttal of what he believed to be the definition of true friendship.
“Do you think to make me a bass in your choir, then?” continued Ryan.
Alban caught the twinkle in Ryan’s eye.
“No, I don’t think that you could sing well enough. Furthermore, I do not have a choir. If I did, there would be no bucket wide or deep enough with which you could carry a tune, let alone harmonize. Besides, you are hardly a bass; you would be lucky to make baritone. Maybe you are a baritenor.” suggested Alban, laughingly.
“Oh, I know that I’m no bass.” chuckled Ryan. “I am most definitely a tenor that comes from a long line of tenors. I was just trying to show you that I’m not suitable material for your type of choir!”
“To what type of choir do you refer?” asked Alban in curiosity.
“I guess we’ll find out sooner or later. I’m not even entirely sure. You can’t be sure either, unless your memory has returned!”
“I only wish that it were so. I do grow tired of not knowing even the basics of who I am and . . . of people asking me if I remember.” Alban jabbed with nodded head and raised eyebrows.
“That is the thing that most puzzles me about you!” began Ryan, as Alban nodded in agreement. “No! I mean that you don’t even know who you are, where you come from, or anything like that, yet you still go about as happy as a flitterbird. You wake up in slave’s chains (well, not in chains, but as a slave), there has been attempt after attempt on your life, you have nothing to your name (or lack of name), and you flit about like you had no care in the world.”
“There are no flitterbirds in these parts. They would not survive in such dry conditions.” laughed Alban. “I guess that would be the flip side of the coin, though. I cannot remember my past. Maybe that’s a good thing. If I were a murderous fiend before this . . . new life, I do not remember it. I have no political baggage, no burdens, no worries, no sins, and no known religious affiliation, though that last part saddens me.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, how can I do what is right if I cannot remember the rights and covenants of my religion to do them?”
“You refer to covenants and such? Who is not in that boat? Men forget such things all the time without any serious blows to the head. The mists of life creep in and obscure things to where they lose track of things that should already be an internal part of them. I think that when your memory returns, that you will find that you have been loyal to your God. Everything that I have seen you to do has been noble and good. You must be one of those people that actually had those key elements internalized before that blow to the head.”
“Well sung, my friend, and I welcome you to the choir!’ laughed Alban who was joined by Ryan. “You see, I told you that friendship gives you freedom. You just spoke your mind, knowing that I would accept it as a kindness paid to me. Men can still be kind to each other and have strong friendships. I know that it makes men stronger than otherwise.”
“I guess that may be so, but what are we going to do now with that strength? The Effulgians, it seems, could be upon us any time now.”
“Well . . .” Alban began, clearing his throat. “Wafflestonks told me that I was much earlier than he expected. As to how much earlier, I don’t know if we could get that out of him in time, whether we lulled him into confidence or beat it out of him (which I am opposed to doing). I think that our best bet is to set up some sort of defense against the event that they get here before dark and see where that takes us. If we make it until dark with no contact, we will have to set guards . . . and scouts round about to make us privy of their coming by night.”
“That sounds good. I’ll take those things into consideration.” Ryan returned.
“I do not wish to seem the ingrate, but I seem to be quite gifted in the art of war and defense. It is our best chance for now — unless you can think of any other plan. Also, it would be best if we could use the basin as a trap for the Effulgians if possible. We just have to figure out what to do with the thieves for now.”
“Well, let’s set the guards and lookouts and figure things out from there.”
“Agreed.” said Alban. “Although, it may be advantageous to get the gate open and shut ourselves inside with the thieves. That way, if we are attacked, we could use our arrows from cover. They would have none from outside the gate and most of the way up the path that leads to the upper shelf.
As the two of them walked back to the others, Alban tapped Ryan on the back of the shoulder opposite of him. Ryan looked around to see who had tapped him.
“What?” asked Alban.
“I thought that someone had tapped me on this other shoulder, but there is no one here but the two of us. I could have sworn that . . . anyway, let’s get back to the others.” Ryan said with a wide-eyed, spooked look on his face. “I never have liked these parts of this desert.”
“Oh, I know! It is just so hot down here in this valley!” suggested Alban.
“Uhhh . . . Yes! Yes, it is!” Ryan poorly attempted to cloak his fear.
Alban chuckled loudly and said, “Come on. We need to get everything ready. I hope that it’s enough.”
Wafflestonks was arguing with OoftHall when they got back. As their backs were to them, Alban translated for Ryan in a whisper. OoftHall was saying that the fight between Wafflestonks and Alban couldn’t count, because Alban had not been a thief before the fight. He said that it was like getting caught by a town constable and then making him leader of the clan. Wafflestonks defended his position by saying that he had been given no choice. He could only choose between relinquishing his position or dying and leaving the clan leaderless.
“I think that you let him win!” sneered OoftHall. “I mean, a couple of quick moves, and you were bested, sword at your throat and all.”
“There. You’ve said it. I was bested. If you think it was a sham, then by all means (should we ever get out of this alive) try him. But, I tell you this. Even if you were to set a trap for him, this man cannot be killed so easily. Not by the likes of you!”
OoftHall snorted out, “Don’t be so sure about that! Why was he a slave if he cannot be taken?”
“Look. Even if you were to best him, you know how that there is a great division in the clansmen. Some would follow you, and some would follow Garrve. Garrve may not be the best of tacticians, but he is a most excellent fighter. You, OoftHall are not, though you are cunning. That wit may even make it possible for you to gain the advantage over Garrve, but the whole clan has been hoping for the slightest chance to find excuse, small or great, for a full out civil war to determine things. You know this to be true. Bracktan said as much before our duel, and this in front of the whole clan. He was leader of the whole clan, not the few. That is why and how he held on to his position for as long as he did, which I understand to be only short while. You cannot dispute that point. He said (and you heard him, OoftHall) that while he thought that he would win handily, he was glad that it was I who was challenging him; he did not want a war raging within the clan.” Wafflestonks rebutted in a sound manner.
“We will see!” grunted OoftHall.
“Only one of us is seeing, my friend.” replied Wafflestonks sadly.
With that, OoftHall was at Wafflestonks’ throat. It gave Alban a perfect opportunity.
“Separate them!” he yelled to the men standing guard over them.
It was easier said than done, for it took three of them to accomplish said separation. One held Wafflestonks down, two pulled OoftHall off of his victim and then one of the two held OoftHall, while the other stood between the two thieves.
“Bring this one with me to the gate.” ordered Alban. “We have no need for him now. I think I might just put him back in his place.”
The guard that held OoftHall and the one which had formed the human barrier each grabbed an arm and began to drag OoftHall to the gate at the head of the basin. OoftHall noticed Alban walking ahead of them toward the gate and quickly devised a plan. He feigned tripping. When the guards began to lift him up again, he kicked one in the stomach and pushed the other, grabbing his counterpart’s sword as he fell back away from him to the ground. He then ran as fast as he could at Alban, sword raised to slaughter on the down swing.
“Alban! Alban!” shouted Joan hoarsely from the carriage. “NOOOO!” she screamed when he made no motion to heed.
Just then, OoftHall reached Alban and let the sword fall. Alban went down to the ground in front of OoftHall whose momentum sent him crashing toward earth as well.
“NOOOO!!!” screamed Joan, followed by uncontrollable wailing.
The guards finally reached the two, ready to slay the thief. They were surprised, however, to see the point of a sword protruding through the back of OoftHall’s already bloodied shirt.
“Ha! He fell on his own sword!” said one guard.
“Galandetra’s Whistle!” said the other.
Then they noticed a rustling from underneath OoftHall’s fallen body.
“This brute is heavy!” groaned Alban under the weight.
“Here, let us help you up.” said the first guard.
“No. I must be seen to do it myself.” replied Alban. “However, I do thank you for the offer.”
Alban struggled for a second, and finally threw the soldier off of him. He stood, extracted his sword, and raised it above his head, shouting in victory. He began to jog back to the wagon, but decided that it would be better to walk since stars began to appear in the afternoon air. When he reached the wagon, he barely had the strength to climb up into it. He saw Joan on the bed, crying her eyes out.
“I’m sorry that you had to see that.” began Alban. “It must have been horrible to see such a thing!”
Joan sprang from the bed and yelled, “How could you have done such a thing to me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I have already apologized to you.”
“That’s the best you can come up with?” Joan returned.
“Yep.” volleyed Alban, which was quite out of character for him.
Joan’s eyes got bigger and then narrowed as her brow furrowed in anger as hot tears of frustration gushed from her eyes. Alban thought it was a bit funny, and cracked a weakening smile. Joan’s hand came smashing into Alban’s cheek, and he went down like a felled tree into the bed.
Ryan, who had come to see the spectacle, began to laugh and said, “Galandetra’s Whistle! You can sure pack a wallop!”
“Too bad he didn’t feel it!” grumbled Joan.
“Oh, I’m sure he felt that!” said Ryan.
“He was out before it got there.” Joan offered, though she was saddened that she had not let him feel her wrath. That feeling gave way to the gladness that began to swell within her that Alban was spared.
“Well, I’m sure that he’ll feel it when he wakes up! At any rate, you had better stich that wound up soon, or he’ll bleed out, and won’t have felt a thing!”
“Oh!” Joan sighed. “That wound is opened again?”
“No! That’s that thief’s doing. It’s lucky that it was in the lower back where the skin is so thick, or that cut could have been fatal. Still, that’s a nasty wound. I’ll leave you to it!”
“Get out!” snarled Joan.
Ryan left, slamming the door as he did. The sound woke Alban and he sat up with a start.
“Are you alright?” he groggily asked Joan.
The look in her eyes gave him to know that he was the one in trouble, so he conveniently passed out again. He fell in such a position that Joan could see the depth of the wound as the skin separated enough to reveal the tissue below the skin’s surface just before more blood came oozing out. She immediately grabbed a towel, since there was no bandage or handkerchief handy. She had been using it to dry her tears and now held it against the gash.
“I’ll need bandages, boiled water, and a needle and thread if I am to sew this up! Guard!” ordered Joan.
One of the guards opened the door to the wagon door with the necessary items in hand.
“That was quick!” gasped Joan.
“We jest done finished with the prisoner that Alban stitched up . . . and jest killed. Wasted effort, now I’d say.” explained the guard. “The stitching, I mean, not the killing. He’d had it comin’, runnin’ up on a man like that and ambushin’ ‘im from behind like that! That’s a dog’s move I tell you. Why, it’s lower!”
“Here, you hold this towel against his wound while I prepare the needle and thread!” Joan urgently ordered. “No! Wash your hands first! Do you want to kill the man?”
The guard washed his hands, then grabbed the towel and held it tight against the wound, which made Alban moan in pain. Joan smiled to herself and slightly chuckled. She threaded the needle and pulled on the thread to test its strength. Finding it to her liking, she approached her patient. She stuck the needle deep into the flesh on one side of the wound. When it had no effect as far as afflicting pain, she just got busy and stitched it up, having the guard wipe the wound clean with the towel from time to time. At length, Joan stopped to admire her handiwork.
“How is that?” she asked the guard.
“It’ll do, but it ain’t narly as purdy as Alban’s work!” the guard replied. When he saw the surprised look on Joan’s face, he added by way of distraction, “That Alban has eyes in the back of his head, I tell you, and the reflexes of a cat. He’s . . . he’s an owlcat!”
“An owlcat? There is no such thing!” Joan laughed a laugh that came so deep from within her that she didn’t detect its imminence until it was already out. She was a bit upset that she was no longer angry at Alban because she had so wanted to keep it up.
“Wull, there is an owlcat right there, I tells yuh! He sees in all directions, and reacts to his circum . . . his sichiation better than a cat.”
“Well, he can’t see behind him very well, obviously, or he wouldn’t be wounded.” Joan offered, as a potential way to gain back some of the steam to her mood.
“I think he done it on purpose!”
“Yep. I sez he done it on purpose.”
“I heard that, but why would he do such a thing?” asked Joan in all earnest.
“Well, there was talk that they wasn’t gonna let him be leader. Somethin’ about that there wasn’t any resol . . . that things wasn’t like they should for a takeover. I only know a bit of the thieves’ speech, but that OoftHall says that errr . . . no! It was Wafflesgonks. He says that there was problems on two sides of the clan . . .”
“So Alban decided to get involved, is that it?”
“It seems so.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Wull, If you went from a slave to a freeman and the chance to lead an army was given to ya, wouldn’t you give ‘er a try?”
“That would make sense.” admitted Joan. “But, I just don’t see him as being the ambitious type.”
“No, ambitious. It means to seek out that which one doesn’t have.”
“So, if I wanted a drink of water . . . and I didn’t have one, I would be . . . ambi . . . tious?”
Joan smiled and said, “No. Ambition usually has to do with money and power, not everyday needs. It is a form of greed, sometimes.”
“What if I didn’t need the water, or maybe it’s my water to start with?!” asked the guard almost accusingly.
“I suppose that you might be correct!” laughed Joan. “But Alban does need rest, so . . . That will be all, for now. Thank you.”
“You are most welcome, young Joan. If you need anythin’ else we’ll be right here outside.” the guard assured her as he left and closed the door.
“Joan! Joan!” moaned Alban from the bed.
Joan felt good to be needed by him. She felt a bit of fulfillment at the prospect. Maybe that is why she had nursed him back to near health before. But to hear him moan her name like that nearly made her cry for joy.
“Are you going to stitch me up or not?” mumbled Alban.
The tears never came and she remembered the reason that she had been crying before. She wanted another crack at him, now that he was awake, but restrained herself.
“I already stitched you up, you marlrat!” she said.
Well, she had tried for restraint.
“Marlrat? What do you . . .?”
“You know full and well what I mean!” scolded Joan with great fervor. “Why else would you go seeking after the leadership of a clan of thieves?”
“I sought after nothing; it came running up on me. I’ll remind you that it was in your defense that I earned that title, as well.”
“Then why did you let that Oof . . . thall come running up on you and take such a risk like that? You could be dead right now!” cried Joan.
“First of all, his name is pronounced Ooft-Hall. Secondly, he had planned to kill me, anyway; it was better to know approximately when he should attack (and while he was wounded). And thirdly, I may well already have died and an angel has attended to my wounds, and though she scolds, she speaks to me now.”
Joan melted and sat on the bed beside Alban. She grabbed a washcloth and began to clean the blood from around the bandaged wound.
“I am sorry. I just wanted to . . .”
“No, you still wish it otherwise, but you love me, and it hurt to think that you might lose me.” Alban returned in interruption, quite to the shock of Joan. “Nobody wants to be a loser!” laughed Alban.
Joan feigned as if she were upset, but the nurse could not fool her patient.
“It is something that we need out of the way. I have feelings for you and you for me. To pretend otherwise is to waste precious time that neither of us has. You would never have screamed out in warning like that for Nordholst or maybe even Ryan. You may have warned them, but it would not sound as if it were you were being murdered in cold blood as you watched.” continued Alban, as Joan finished washing the wound.
“I guess that some good has come out of you . . . getting stuck like a pig.” laughed Joan.
“Pigs squeal more!” returned Alban, as he turned from his stomach to his side.
“Why do you have blood all over your face?” quizzed Joan. “Is it scarred?”
“No. I don’t think so. Why, would that change things?”
Joan laughed, “It might ruin the most handsome face that I have ever seen . . . Oh! I did not want you to know that.” She blushed a nice, bright red and tried to think of a way to cover her overt slip of the tongue, but there was really no remedy.
Alban couldn’t decide what it was that he should think about the current situation. After quick self-deliberation, he decided to ignore the accidental compliment. After all, it was obviously an accident, and therefore subject to further scrutiny. Besides, he did not want to embarrass Joan any further.
“Well, we could get the blood off of my face, and that would tell a whole lot. You have me curious now. I just realized that neither do I have any idea as to what I look like, nor do I know what my normal appearance should be. I have to admit that I am curious to see my face!” Alban regaled.
“What?” asked Joan.
“Really.” Alban offered.
“You have to remember what you look like!”
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” Joan asked, shocked at the idea. “You really have to know what you look like. I mean, everyone has to look in the mirror every day just to see how their hair looks!”
“Slaves have no such luxury.” Alban teased. “Besides, I have hardly had the time to do such things, as I have been a bit busy saving your neck.”
“I have been saving yours as well!” returned Joan.
“I suppose that you have, Joan.” Alban agreed softly.
“I guess that I just thought that you would remember something as important as that!”
“Well, I do not.” Alban stated. Then in a fun, teasing sort of way, he added, “You are the one that always goes around looking in the mirror.”
“Oh, do I?” Joan returned in feigned gasping tones of surprise.
“I believe that you do. There is no other way that you could look so gorgeous all the time! You tempt the very angels to covet your beauty.”
Tears welled up in the eyes of the object of his compliment. It was not at all that she had never heard that type of thing said about her. It was more the fact that it was eloquently stated and, more importantly, that he had deeply meant to say it and not simply to flatter her; he meant to show her a kindness. Kindness seemed a rarer commodity than even water in those parts. Joan, visibly affected by his kind words, began to see Alban as more than a patient, though she had feelings for him before. He was also more than a protector or a friend. Now, she saw him as a great man that was obviously far from his world, but still able to thrive in spite of his lack of memory and former enslavement. She felt suddenly small and insignificant compared to him. But at the same time, and though she could not understand why, he made her feel so much more special than ever before. He was able to easily find things deep inside of her that she had not known were there. It scared her to think of someone having that much influence on her; she completely trusted him with her life.
Noticing the tears, Alban asked softly, “I am sorry. Have I offended you?”
“Not at all.” whispered Joan with a lump in her throat.
She felt the wet washcloth in her hands and realized that she had not cleaned the dried blood streaks from his face. She got right to work scrubbing as fast as she could.
“What’s the hurry?” sputtered out Alban between barrages of cleaning and wiping. When Joan stopped scrubbing, he asked her, “Well, did you scar it with your scrubbing?”
“Let me see.” she said softly, as she moved closer to look.
She planted a great big kiss right on his lips.
“There, you’re all done!” she exclaimed and gathered things up to leave him to rest.
“Oh, I’m not done yet!” Alban bellowed.
But he was done, because when he tried to stand, he fell back into the bed, out cold. That is how the legend began of the young maiden that was of such powerful beauty that her kiss could render the man that she kissed unconscious. Given the fact that Alban was already weak from loss of blood, that legend was maybe only half true. Still, it is not clear if Alban would have fallen on his own or if that kiss weakened him further, causing his downfall.
Joan pondered on those events as she climbed down from the wagon. She wondered how she was going to let Alban know of her secret past — letting him know might ruin everything. She knew that however she told him, that it would not be easy.
“You should not be out of bed!” Joan scolded with feigned tones of anger.
“Well . . . I am.” Alban replied as he took his gaze from the stars to look at Joan. “Why should I not be up and about? I should think that you might be happy to see me! At least after this afternoon’s . . . I mean . . . evenings? ‘event’, I thought that . . .”
“You thought what? . . . That I am madly in love with you after all that you have put me through? You have another thing coming to you!”
“I am quite taken with you, too!” Alban said.
“What do you mean, ‘too’?”
“I thought that we had already been through all of this. Is it that before, when I was a slave, things between us seemed more like forbidden fruit? Or is it that now that I am a free man, you are afraid that there is nothing holding me back? By the way, if you did not have any feelings for me, then I could never have put you through anything!”
“Ooh! You are so conceited at times!” she snapped back.
“I have to wonder how it is that you think that a recently freed slave could possibly be full of pride! Besides, is it conceited to tell the truth? I see it plainly enough in you. Do not think that your heart betrays you; it is probably on the right track. But I must ask you, Joan. Are you betraying your heart? One must be true to one’s self before he or she may be true to anything or anyone else. Would you betray yourself?”
“Do you say such things to all of the women that you come across or is it that you think me to be stupid enough to fall for such cheap lines?”
“Joan, I have no recollection of the past — and you know that. Furthermore, I think you to be quite intelligent. I think that you are intelligent enough to recognize the truth when it scares you in the face.”
“I think that you mean to employ the old adage that it ‘stares me in the face’.”
“No. I said what I meant.”
“Why should I ever be afraid of you?”
“You are not. I make you feel safe and loved. At least I do try hard to do so. You are scared of those feelings, but that is only natural.”
Joan hung her head in defeat.
After a few seconds of silence, save the yelping of some desert foxes, Alban continued, “Actually Joan, I do not know why I came out here. I just felt compelled to go out on a moonlit walk, I guess.”
“All alone?” Joan asked flirtingly.
Joan tried to sit down next to Alban, but the small boulder that she had chosen gave way and rolled backwards, leaving a small, dark opening in its place. Alban caught her hand just as she was disappearing into the abyss below. He felt a sharp stab of pain shoot through his lower back as it twisted under the sudden weight. He was sure that the stitches were split. He got his balance and began to pull Joan up.
“You could have just said that you had fallen for me, you did not have to use such a drastic visual aid!” he grunted, as he held her in suspension.
“Just pull me up and dispense with the hilarity!”
“I don’t know if I can by myself.”
“Just do not say anything!”
“No, I mean, I do not know if I can raise you! I just felt something pop in my back!”
Alban positioned himself to where he had more leverage. To his surprise, he was easily able to pull her up. It must have been a good pop that he had felt. Joan wrapped her arms around him and hugged with all her might. Maybe it was the adrenaline that had kicked in, but her might was formidable then and there.
“I do not mean to dissuade you from your embrace at all. But, I wonder if you could put just a little less pressure on my back area . . . and my ribs. They are still a bit sore.”
“Oh! I am so sorry!” Joan said, as she released her embrace.
To her surprise, she could still not get clear from Alban; he held on.
“I thought that you said . . .”
“Joan, I said that I wondered if you could put a bit less pressure there on my back, but I suggest you keep holding on as well.”
She repositioned her hands and they continued their embrace for a few more seconds. Just then, Ryan came walking up.
“What are the two of you doing out here?” he asked suspiciously, though, it was fairly plain what they were doing.
“Joan was just falling for me!” Alban chuckled.
“What?!” started both Ryan and Joan at once, followed by an icy silence.
Joan began again, “I nearly fell . . .”
“Yes, and I caught her.” Alban interrupted.
“You are lucky that I found you and not Decebal. He would have had the both of you whipped — innocent or not.”
“I do not think that we were lucky that you found us!” said Joan, before she realized it had slipped.
Alban chuckled a bit and added, “If you had found Decebal why would he have had us whipped?”
Alban and Joan snickered a bit. Ryan did not laugh at either attempt at humor, though.
“What were you doing out here, anyway?” Ryan asked.
“We . . .”
Alban offered, again in interruption, “Joan came to see why I was out of bed. She slipped and fell. I caught her . . .”
“Oh. Well, neither of you should be out and about this late at night. A guard could . . . might think that you are up to no good, lurking about taking that which does not belong to you. You need to be more careful.”
“Ryan, I will do as I please!” Joan shot back at him. “You are not anyone to boss me around!”
Alban stated calmly, “He was merely concerned for your safety, Joan. He meant no harm.”
By the light of the torch, Ryan’s eyes seemed to thank Alban, but it was still dark. At any rate, the inquisition ceased and the tone changed to more pleasant timbres.
“Well, let’s get the both of you back.” Ryan insisted again.
“If it be the same to you, I want to stretch and walk around a bit, Ryan. Sometimes that is the very thing that is needed to help heal wounds. Joan, I will walk you back, though. You can stay in the carriage for the night.”
“But I wanted to see . . .”
“Joan, we can talk about this on the way. Thank you, Ryan. I suppose that you feel obligated to take over, having been second in command of the caravan. It is good that you wish take care of all that are here in this fraction of what used to be a caravan. It shows that you are responsible for . . . that you take your duty seriously.”
Ryan seemed almost perturbed as he shot back, “You have said as much before.”
“Well, then it must be true!” Joan soothed.
Alban took advantage of the break in tension and said, “Let us get you back, Joan. We will need to be well rested for tomorrow.”
“Why? What are we going to be doing tomorrow?” asked Joan.
“I would wager that it will be something exciting, judging by the past few weeks!” quipped Ryan.
“I suppose so, Ryan.” smiled Alban. “Well, Joan, may I escort you back to your chambers?”
Before Ryan had a chance to protest, Joan chimed in, “Yes, you may!”
With that, the two walked slowly toward the carriage, and Ryan skulked off toward the camp where the other men were sleeping.
When they were out of earshot, Joan whispered, “What is with all of the secrecy?”
“What do you mean?” Alban asked aloud.
“I mean all of the covering of what happened between us, and there was no hole in your story.”
“I said nothing that was not true . . . and it is always good to have no hole in one’s story; it makes it more believable.” Alban jested.
“Yes, Alban, but you did try to cover the fact that we had embraced for quite some time and there is also the hole. Every time that Ryan approached the subject, you seemed to cover. Why?”
“Well, I do intend to cover that hole back up, but not before I have had a good look into it. From the light of the moons, it seemed as though the boulder that you so gracefully tossed away was carved out to fit the opening. That may mean that there was something hidden there. I just want to find out exactly what that might be. I am going to grab some rope and a torch. Then I will go back to see what is in that pit.”
“A hole opens in the ground, and you have to jump right in it?”
“No. That is why I am going to get a torch and rope. I’ll throw the torch down, and if the hole isn’t too deep, I will lower myself down with the rope!” explained Alban.
“Yes, I get that much. What I am saying is that just because you see a hole in the ground, does not mean that you have to go throwing yourself into it.”
Alban got a devilish look in his eyes and smiled as he said, “You are the one that started it!”
“Yes! It had just barely opened up and you went throwing yourself right into it! At least I have the sense to go get a rope and torch before I try anything like that! Well, I admire your courage, do not get me wrong, but what were you really trying to do?” Alban cackled, sending Joan into a rolling laughter herself.
“I suppose that I did!” she giggled at length.
When the laughter had died down a bit, Joan could see by the light of the greater moon that had suddenly come up undetected that Alban had a grave, distant look usurp itself upon his face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“What is what?”
“I see that look on your face. You went from happy laughter to solemn stillness. What is going on in that head of yours?”
“I guess that I am just happy.” he sort of explained.
“I should hate to ever see you sad and stoic if this is happy!”
“It is as if I left a lamp burning . . . somewhere. I do not know where. That is the turmoil that has registered itself upon my mind. I am incredibly happy now . . .”
“Alban, I know. I feel it, too. You feel as though this whole thing could come crashing down around us at any given second. You struggle to hold it up, but you are afraid that some secret, however innocent, may be found out and melt the white snow that covers all the dirty mess that your life has been.”
“That begins to describe it. I just do not know what kind of ‘dirty mess’ that my life has been before this one!” he teased.
“You know what I mean!” laughed Joan.
Alban turned serious again and whispered softly, “I do. I understand. This desert could prove to be a difficult place to keep that snow from melting, though I do not see the problem as snow.”
“How would you describe it, then?” Joan asked playfully.
“I would call it a well of sweet, clear water that springs up from this desert floor, washing away the filth of the past, in my case, completely. You seem to replenish my heart!”
“You have a gorgeous way about you!” Joan spurted out, astounded.
“I . . . shall . . . try . . . to take that as a compliment.” joked Alban.
“Well, you had better!” smiled Joan. “You find the beauty in everything and bring it to light in the lives of those around you. You did it as a slave! How do you do it?”
“What else is there, Joan? Perhaps because I was a slave it was all that I had left. No, that is not it. I never did feel reduced to slavery, as though there were something more than a mere position about me. I expect that I cannot explain it.”
“Then allow me. You are a beautiful man!”
“I do moisturize as often as possible, though this desert life makes it ever so difficult!” laughed Alban.
“Stop it!” Joan warned, unable to keep a straight face. “I will pay you this overdue compliment! I am talking about that which is not seen on the surface, and you know it! Most people that are good looking in this world believe that they can get away with anything because they are . . . well . . . good looking. Having learned that lesson when young, they do as they please and make others atone for their sins, if you will. You do not. You are probably the best looking man that I have ever known in my life, yet you are kind and generous, even to your captors. How is it that you are so? Why?”
Alban’s grave look returned as he said, “Perhaps that is the secret of which you have spoken, dear Joan, then again, maybe not. I am torn between two worlds — this one which is here and now and the one that I came from.”
“I see it as a blessing, Alban. You have been able to see who you are deep down inside, and though a slave, you have done it without constraint of position. In fact, while the very positions that most men fill usually constrain them, you constrained your position. You made it into something much more dignified. You bloomed too brightly to stay tucked away out of sight.”
“If I have ‘bloomed’, it has been by God’s good grace. He allowed me to be placed in the arms of a woman who would care for me when and how I needed it most. I do not know how it is that I deserved that. All I have done is to pray and the rest was provided for me.”
“I have heard and read that God does such things for a purpose. You must have a greater purpose in life.”
“Well, my only purpose right now is to get down that hole and figure out what it was that was so precious that whoever hid it took the time to hide it with a carved boulder!”
“Don’t you think that maybe there was a good reason to keep that thing stopped off? What if there is a den of cavern zaffs down there?”
Alban grabbed a rope and torch from Ryan’s great wagon and said, “Joan! Your grammar! At any rate, if there is a den of cavern zaffs down there, then, I hope to live to tell the tale; they do not live this far south.”
“What is it with you and danger? Do you have to find it, wherever it may be, and run headlong into it?”
“Joan, we may already be in danger and not even know it. What if there is a passage down there where a host of soldiers or thieves . . . or both wait to come out and murder us in our sleep? Vigilance demands that I go down that hole.”
“I demand that you do not go down that hole!”
“Well, if ‘Vigilance’ demands that I go down and you demand that I do not, I will have to call you ‘Distraction’ from now on!” Alban said as he began to walk away. “Excuse me, Miss Inattentiveness, but I must go, possibly, to save your life yet again!”
“Stop it!” chuckled Joan.
“You said that I may have a purpose in life.” continued Alban. You do not know if that purpose was merely to save your neck a few times, and now that is all over. Maybe I have served my purpose here in this life!”
“Yes, I meant to thank you properly for having saved my life . . . again! I apologize that it has taken me so long to do so. I do not know where my head was.”
“Right above your heart on that cute little neck!” he quipped, sarcastically flirting.
With that, Alban disappeared into the night. He came back a long while later and was surprised to see Joan standing right where he had left her.
“Well, did you find any armies or bandits?” she teased.
“No. I did not.” he answered in a solemn softness. “Do not go down there! There are things not meant for the eyes of man down there!”
Joan’s blood curdled at the tone in his voice — just a bit, though. Her curiosity was piqued to the point that she started to press.
As she opened her mouth to ask, Alban’s voice stopped her from uttering a sound, as it said, “It is not yet time. For your own sake, do not ask and do not go near the hole. I have sealed it up again, anyway. It is no use.”
With that, he passed out again. Had it been anyone else, there would have been some sort of nickname assigned to him at that point. But, given the situations that had weakened him, and the fact that he had saved many lives and won the affections of a great many, no names, cruel or otherwise, were allocated to him.
Joan called for help and soon Alban was on the bed in the wagon again.
“Oh, Joan . . .” Alban mumbled as he came to.
“It was so horrible!”
“What happened to you?” Joan queried.
Alban was unresponsive.
Dusk was stealing across the evening sky. A full array of fiery yellow, orange, and red tones engulfed the castle towers, leaving only the development of deep, dark shadows in their fading. The courtyards and gardens were all empty. A solemn silence swept through the still stone structures. Great billows of smoke filled the air, rolling into blinding billows that blotted out the vision, leaving its viewer in complete darkness. A loud voice that seemed to shake the whole earth rose from the darkness and said, “Awake and remember!”
Then, all of a sudden, another fire was shown to him. It seemed to be the glowing white hot coals of the fire of a blacksmith. Metal was heated in a large crucible and poured out into a mold. After the metal cooled, it was taken by the blacksmith and folded and forged into a blade with great pummeling blows of the skilled artisan. At length, a blade came forth that was unimpressive by the looks of it, but when wielded, it smashed a gorgeously jeweled and shiny blade.
A young, recently freed slave awoke with a start from his dream and in a cold sweat. He opened his eyes and looked up at the multitude of stars that were so bright that they seemed to dangle just out of reach above him. He tried again to think as to why the dream had such great emotions attached to it. Was it a memory, or merely a nightmare that had poured itself deep down into his mind and heart? This time he noticed the emotional pain that was apparently associated with the vision. He also remembered much more of the dream than before. Joan was . . .
Suddenly, Alban remembered that he had left consciousness inside of the wagon (Ryan’s wagon, to be more precise). Now that he had found it out under the dark desert sky, he wondered as to why. He looked around himself, hoping to figure out what was going on, because he did not think that he should have been placed on his back, given that he had been badly wounded there.
“Success!” he said to himself upon seeing that his hands and feet were bound.
He must have said it aloud, for Wafflestonks laughed and asked, “You call this . . . success? I should hate to see you on a bad day!”
“Uhhh . . . well, I was just trying to figure out why I was placed on my back, when that is where I was wounded . . . and I figured it out when I saw the bonds on my limbs.”
“Perhaps you should have said, ‘Small success!’ We are not in a good situation, my friend.”
“That, I did understand, but why?”
“It seems that the party that you were traveling with has returned and put you in . . . well, they have tied you up with the rest of us. Why would they do such a thing?”
“I was a slave when I awoke a few days ago. I think it was a few days ago. Anyway, I have no recollection before that point. It was a head injury that took my memories from me.”
“Well, sound my nose as a trumpet!” began Wafflestonks. “You were right that I was bluffing about the Slave King before, but the more I hear about you the more I am convinced that you are one and the same!”
“Well, you know the song, apparently . . . or at least a version of it. The one that I recall had no beheading of any thieves.”
“I put that in there to test you. But, go on . . .”
“Well, I mean that there is a part that goes, ‘the man shall know no past, only the present future, until he finds himself again.’ . . .”
“. . . And you think that it could be applied to me . . . how?” asked Alban, though he obviously knew to what Wafflestonks referred.
“You know no past, Sire. If you, indeed, remember nothing of your life until you woke up a few days ago, so you have no past; all that you know is the present, so . . .”
“How do I know the future, then?” Alban asked in earnest as he began to seriously entertain the idea of being a ‘Slave King’. Then he added, still unwilling to show any shadow of acceptance, “There is a whole lot of things that could come from such general terms. How many have claimed that they were the Slave king in the past?”
“Oh, lots and lots, I suppose. This was usually the sticking point. That one phrase could not be rationalized in any way, shape, or form.” explained Wafflestonks. “There have been some whose pasts were unknown, simply because there was no one that had known them. They were simply strangers to the rest. But you . . . you fit those words most excellently as you remember no past and all that you know now is what is at present . . . and this new shadow of what you can become through this very legend!”
In perfect Effulgian, Alban asked most seriously, “Are you a lawyer or professor in Effulgia? You see, you are very convincing — almost to the point that I should like to believe you. You also have a unique way of interpretation of the words.”
“I am not trying to twist word around to suit my needs!”
“Nor am I accusing you of such. If that were what I had meant, I would have said as much.” Alban clarified. “I merely meant that you had a good understanding of the language and its application. Most people these days will hear things only the way that they should like things to be.”
“It becomes harder and harder, no matter what language be employed, not to be misinterpreted in one’s speech. I understand that. Lies water down any real meaning from a language, and the dilution that follows becomes lukewarm and infested with parasitic cataratum spawn.”
“Well said, indeed! You do see what I mean, though? You have a great command of the Effulgian language. You employ great usage of imagery and metaphor — such as the cataratum. You obviously have had a good education.” Alban reiterated.
“I graduated from the Academy at Three Rivers City!” Wafflestonks offered.
“I hear that is a fine academy, indeed. In fact, it rivals many universities.”
“Quite so. Though, it is not quite the education that I should have received at the Castle City of Effulgia. Still, it was good training and as young ambassador to the nation of Watersguard, it was my duty.” expounded Wafflestonks.
“Why, then, do they (and who are they that did) send you, a man that is so well educated to infiltrate a band of thieves? Could they not serve their purpose much better by paying men off to tip the thieves into their hands?”
“It was from Effulgia that I was sent . . . though, I often have wondered the same thing. I did not question the command at the time that I was sent, being actually glad to have escaped the turmoil at the overthrow of the King of Effulgia.”
“The king was overthrown, then? How did that happen?” asked Alban in earnest.
“Oh! There was great treachery dealt him! His own two sons plotted against him and overthrew his kingdom, the merggermongers! (Please excuse the vulgarity, as I have been among these barbarians for some time now.) Anyway, these two sons consorted with a secret confederate of rulers from the northern lands. I only know because I had been read into the confidence of the King of Watersguard, as he was most fond of me and a powerful ally to the Effulgians before the rebellion. He had a most deep respect for the King in particular. With the help of the mentioned confederation, these two rogues killed and bribed their way to joint usurpation of the throne.
“I do not understand how it was that he did not see these things coming. He is usually so sharp! He and my father were the greatest of friends. In fact, I was a friend to his son as well. Those two were so much alike . . . to say that they were cut from the same cloth would be so misleading, for they were much more than appearance . . . to say that they were cast from the same mold would do them injustice, for they were of the same heart. For the most part, aside from kingly duties and the son’s schooling, they were inseparable (and sometimes the boy would even hide in a small cubby hole to listen in on the Court affairs). I had a good relationship with my father; do not mistake me for a jealot. They just had a relationship that is so rare.
“It was just very natural for them to make friends — close ones, and for life. They . . .”
“I wish that I had known this king of whom you speak. It is so rare to have a ruler of such great humility that he can make friends so easily!”
“I said nothing of humility! Are you sure that you did not know him?” Wafflestonks asked, suspiciously.
“No man that is not humble to some degree can get along with anyone else for any meaningful amount of time, let alone become an affectionate friend. A man that has such societal stature can only make such true friends if he is happy to actually serve his fellow being. That is how and why friendship exists.”
“You know, you remind me of his son — a whole lot, in fact. You seem to be about the right age, as well. He was a lot skinnier, though. Anyway, as I mentioned before, we were great friends before I left for Watersguard. We kept writing the whole time that I was away. He kept me apprised of the happenings at Effulgia and offered me great support and advice on my learning and diplomatic efforts. It was on the tone of his letters the last while and the fact that after a while no more came that I first became suspicious. I had wondered if I had said something in one of my letters that had offended him. After around two years, I got a letter from a relative that explained a lot. He said that he suspected that King Crescentius had been made a puppet, so to speak, and that his youngest son had been captured and held to ensure the king’s cooperation. Apparently that had fallen through, and by the time that I received the letter, the sons had usurped the throne. So, I got special permission to have the final exams given to me ahead of the rest of the students, and I left for Effulgia, having graduated with full honors. When I got there, I was sent to this detail.”
“How did they react when they saw you there at the castle at Effulgia?” Alban asked in earnest.
“I did not go to the castle, for the court has been moved, but they seemed extremely surprised to see me.”
“Like they had seen a ghost?”
“Yes! Precisely!” exclaimed Wafflestonks. “How did you know?”
“Well, first tell me who it was that sent you out here.”
“It was the older of the two.”
“The two brothers that usurped the throne?”
“It was all his idea?”
“Well, maybe . . . no. It could have been his assistant, who had been given a strange title that was something along the lines of being his Assistant in Chief. The two stood aside in conference before my orders were received.”
“How was he dressed?”
“Like any Effulgian lord, though I must admit that in all my days at the castle I never set eyes on him . . . No . . . never did I see him before that day.”
“What did his sword look like?” asked Alban with a tone that gave Wafflestonks the idea that it may be the key in figuring out the whole plot.
“It was the most gorgeous sword that I had ever seen! He even took it out and showed the blade. It shone like no other!”
“My friend, you have been set up for assassination, and survived it. It is an old trick of the Darvanians, though others have caught on and use it on occasion. They send someone out, in the name of honor and service of their country, to undertake a task for which they are, by all outward estimations, unprepared. If the target should live, it is seen as a chance to further their cause and claim success in their endeavors, in this case, the capture or destruction of the thieves in this part. They could have always had the dirty deed done by someone else, should you live. If you were to have died, then they would have accomplished their design, and if they so desired they could use your loss as a reason to gain popularity by ridding themselves of the thieves en route to a feigned vengeance upon your killers. The Darvanians call the move a ‘cap or crown’.”
“So they wanted me dead?” Wafflestonks exclaimed in disgust.
“It appears so. Do you know why?”
“I am not sure.”
“Until you do know, you must stay far out of their reach. Were I you, I would return to Watersguard and seek out some allies, powerful ones, if you have them. Warn them of all that has transpired and ask for their aid in staying alive. But be sure that you go not back to Effulgia, until that matter for which they wished to kill you is settled, or you will not live long.”
“What you say feels right, but how can I know for sure?” Wafflestonks asked solemnly.
“Well, you could go back to Effulgia and get yourself killed or you can think it over for a minute or two.” laughed Alban. “It feels right, because it is right. It would be easier to go back to Effulgia to your home and any family that be left there, but it would not be the right thing to do. We may not ask for every trial that comes upon us in our lives, but we can and must ask God for help through them. He will never leave you alone if you do what is right when it is right. But, you must already believe that or you probably would not have survived the coup.”
“I suppose that you are right . . . about all of it. It’s just nice to have some reassurance.”
“The best reassurance comes from the Lord. Ask in prayer if what you have decided is right, now that you have studied it out in your mind. If it is the best thing for you to do, He will tell you that it is right with an unmistakable burning peace in your heart. Then you will know not only that your decision is the right one, but that the Lord is with you on your errand. Then you need not wonder nor doubt. Accept it and move on.”
“I have heard that often in church, but I never realized the full meaning of it until you just explained it to me. Are you sure that you do not know who you are? You even speak like the prince. I have not had religious talks like this (at least on this personal level) since I last left him at the towers of Effulgia these many years ago.”
“I remember things, but I do not remember anything about who I am.”
“Well, you are obviously someone that has had a great education. You understand the hearts of evil men better than they do, and you do know God, His will, and how to follow Him even though you probably do not know to what church you belong, nor to which kingdom, for that matter.”
“Oh, Galandetra’s whistle! First I am a . . . no, the Slave King from ancient legend, then I suddenly am whisked away to become a prince of Effulgia! Wait!” Alban interrupted. “You mentioned towers! I have been having the same dream for days about towers that were burning. Do you know anything of this?”
“You mean the towers at the realm’s gates! Yes, why?”
“Have they been burned?”
“I have not been to see them for these many years. I cannot say. Why do you ask?”
“As I said, I have had dreams in which there were towers burning. I just wanted to know if they happened to be the same.”
“Perhaps if you should describe them for me . . .”
Alban closed his eyes and began to paint a picture for Wafflestonks. “There were three great towers on what seems to be the front facing walls — one contained the main gate and a drawbridge which seems to have been built to cross a rapidly moving river. There were two more walls that angled out from there slightly and seemed to disappear into the cliff walls that ran along the river.”
“Oh! By the stars of Isthma! That was not the front gate (though it does seem to be the castle hold at Effulgia); that is the rear gate that leads to the fields! The front gate has embattlements of great workmanship and there are countless towers lining the whole of the city. To gain entrance, one must use the ferries that go across the small lake that the same river forms as it winds through the mountain passes. It actually enters into the cliff face and comes out inside the lake.
“I know this, because I was told that there was a fierce battle there at the back gate which was won by the strength of the Castle Guard at Effulgia City. The Darvanians thought that they could surprise us from behind by lowering themselves down by rope from the northern cliffs into the great mountain valleys that have been reserved for the forests and herds. They hoped to gain entrance, and kill the guards so that the bulk of their armies could make a decent frontal attack. They met with utter disappointment. All were killed and swept away by the swift current, or captured. The next morning when scouts were sent out the front gate, they found the bodies of many of the opposing force in the lake’s waters. Word was sent, and a detail was formed to gather the bodies together, so as not to allow the waters to become polluted. They found a barge that was about to be dismantled anyway, and they put the bodies on them and burned them.
“Years later, they decided to see how long it should take for the water to wash through the underwater cave by placing different objects in the water and seeing when it should pop out at fountain which is the source of the lake, just to know for security reasons. A float was made of some cow stomachs; it took about two minutes, maybe less.”
“So, in my dream . . . that was the back gate to the Castle of Effulgia City . . . Its rightful name is Hope’s Holde at Effulgia, is it not?
“Why, yes, it is indeed, named after the first queen whose name was Hope! Hope of Effulgia was her name! How did you know?”
“It seems to me that I have been recalling a memory through my dreams. It could be that I watched those towers burn as I was led away from . . . or, perhaps, past that castle. Well, from what you say, it was the rear wall. It seems to have faced north. Is that correct?”
“Indeed, it is! You are remembering things now?”
“No. I wish that I were! I just remember from my dream that the position of the sun made the walls to cast a great shadow to the north west on the way as we traveled along. It does seem that I was quite distraught at seeing the towers burning as I was being hauled away. Then all becomes blackness . . . in my dream and my memory.”
“Well, it is a start, in the very least.”
“That is true. That is one thing from my past that I have been able to describe and have someone else recognize . . . Exactly why am I in bonds again?”
“It seems that after your tangle with OoftHall, you were allowed to rest in the carriage that . . . the one we tried to steal. I know because I was summoned for questioning about the nearest source of water. I was about to tell them that the Sea of Desolation was only a few days’ ride from here, as a joke that would probably have gotten me beaten about. Suddenly, however, the rest of the party with which you were traveling arrived. There was a long discussion about all that had happened. The leader of the caravan . . . what is his name?”
“Yes. That is he. He began to talk about you and that you should be feeling up to getting about your duties.”
“Well, he’s been injured again after a battle that saved your daugh . . . Joan’s life.” Ryan had said.
“He started to say daughter, and then stopped and used her name?” asked Alban.
“Yes. I found that odd, as well.” explained Wafflestonks.
“It just means that he trusts me.” asserted Alban. “Please go on.”
“Huh? Oh, right! Joan! . . . How is . . . she?” dissimulated Decebal.
“Thanks to Alban, she is unscathed. Who knows what would have happened to her had he not been there to stop them!”
“To stop whom?” asked Decebal.
“The thieves! No one has told you?”
“Wow! Where do I begin? He single handedly took the whole band of the Desert Thieves of Verdis GranSecas.” Ryan exclaimed.
“Single handedly? A slave took the Thieves of Verdis GranSecas? I highly doubt that!”
“Well, then you highly doubt the truth when it stares you in the face!” Ryan sparred back, perceptibly displeased at the impunity of his honor.
“You mean to tell me that that boy took on the greatest menace east of the Barrgle Mountains and, not only did he live, but he managed to capture them all?”
“Boy? Hardly!” Ryan quipped.
“Well, he looks quite young.” Decebal explained.
“I don’t know about that. Anyway, my men and I came riding up at the end. We saw him riding out of the basin on top of my carriage with a sword at the throat of their leader. If you don’t believe me, Joan can confirm all of my words and more, as she was there in the wagon, you’ll remember.”
“No, I do not remember that!” snarled Decebal. “I told her to . . .”
“There was no time! If she hadn’t gotten into the wagon, she could be dead right now. It turns out that by making that one calculation, she saved herself and possibly the rest of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if she had not gotten into the wagon, perhaps Alban should not have fought so bravely. Their leader was astonished at the ease with which he cut though his best men — with an ease that he had only seen one place. Oh, he’s right here, just ask him.”
“How can I trust the word of a thief? And why did you?” snarled Decebal.
“As I have stated, I saw these things with my own two eyes.”
“You said that you came riding up after the fact, as he was leaving!”
“Well, I do have two good eyes! There were also the men that he left bloody and bruised, though he took care not to slay them, which he could have easily done.”
Decebal, stood, weighing the story and his options. At length he offered, “Perhaps he has made a deal with these men to bring us all into some sort of trap!”
“Yes! It’s a trap which involves being captured and losing a dozen men in an attempt to escape. Then they lie in wait for an Effulgian army to come and take them all to prison or the gallows! Ah, the intricacies and cunning of those thieves’ plan! Just when we think that we have them, they line up to die! The irony of it all astounds me! And, to think that you have so masterfully smelled the whole plot out within seconds of having arrived! Amazing!”
Alban laughed at both the remarks that Ryan had made to Decebal and the joy with which Wafflestonks related the tale. “He said all that, did he?”
“Yes, he did, good sir. Yes he did!” laughed Wafflestonks.
“Look, they are still trapped in this basin.” continued Ryan. “Besides, one of the thieves tried to kill Alban — twice. He finally was dealt with when he overpowered a guard, took his sword, and tried to take Alban out from behind. The man has eyes in the back of his head, I tell you, and the reflexes that make a goitercat look slow. I thought that he was a dead man, as he was rushed from behind. He was a flash of lightning, and the thief lay there dead.”
“I don’t pay you for your insolence!” growled Decebal.
“No. You pay me to keep you in the money. Wait! What do you mean, ‘insolence’? You need me more than I need you. Without me you would never have gotten the Darvanian account and well over half of the others. You have the capital; I’ll give you that, although you do owe me greatly, as well. I should like to settle with you now.”
“You should like to settle? Who have you been talking to that you have acquired such manners?”
“I have been speaking with Alban. He merely reminds me of things that I already knew.” explained Ryan.
“You really are taken with this slave, aren’t you?”
“I do respect the man most thoroughly. He is no longer a slave, by the way. I have released him from bonds. You can take that out of the wages and other monies that you owe me, if you should like.”
“You cannot release another man’s slave!”
Ryan paused to sigh in disgust at having to correct Decebal yet again; then he offered in rebuttal, “I am a legal agent for the company. I have the legal authority to bind or release slaves for this company in this or any other state in which we do business. You know that.”
Decebal stood thinking too long, but then actually came up with a brilliantly evil idea. “I bought this slave with my own personal money. That means that he is my personal slave, and as such, you have no power to free him.”
“From whom did you buy him? Do you have the bill of sale?”
“A slaver needs no receipt!”
“He does if he plans to use him as his personal slave, Decebal! You know the law!”
“Ryan, don’t push me in front of the men like this.” Decebal half-begged.
“Look, I am not the only one to have figured out certain things about you. A lot of us know that you are having legal problems that are catching up with you. You owe a lot of money due to your gambling and drinking, as well. You have swindled quite a few, which further accounts for your need to send me along in front of you to carry out your dealings. Even after all that I do for you and this slaver camp, you are running it into the ground. Then someone comes along like Alban to whom the men can look up and it makes your cause even more uninviting. As it stands, I will see you to Darvania, and then I want my money. I know that you have it there in your “secret” stash. In fact, at first light . . .”
“At first light, what?!” Decebal bellowed menacingly.
“At first light we must be gone from here. There is an Effulgian army about to descend on this area; I do not intend to be here when it does.”
“You’ll do as I say while you are in my caravan, or you can travel these deserts alone!”
“If I must do so to avoid a confrontation with the Effulgians, I will gladly travel alone. The ferocious desert predators are tame compared with them and their famed skill is unmatched.”
“They may be grateful for the capture of these thieves, though.” grinned Decebal.
“It would be a fool’s errand to seek for a reward from them. Especially with all of the turbulence that has been brewing in their kingdom, what with all of the rebellions and battles. And you should do well to remember that they are fresh from battles. They would need no time to knock the rust from their swords, only time to clean the blood from their blades after the battle. They have gone against the best that the world has had, and beaten them soundly.
“You must be thoroughly desperate to even consider waiting for a reward.” Ryan continued. “Why is that? What have you done?”
Decebal thought for a moment, shuffling the sand anxiously. All that he could come up with was, “I don’t answer to you, Ryan.”
“You will, Decebal. Sooner or later, you will answer to me. Withhold a tinkle of my money, and you will answer me much sooner.” Ryan said in somberly cold tones. Then he asked, “Well . . . what are you going to do?”
“You’ll get your money!” growled Decebal, as he turned to leave.
“I know that. I have said as much! I want to know if you are going to leave in the morning or stay here to die.” When Decebal did not answer nor turn around, Ryan added, “Like I said, I will get my money at Darvania either way.”
“So . . . we are awaiting the outcome of that conversation?” Alban asked Wafflestonks.
“No, my friend, we are not. Ryan has gone earlier today with his men. They set out at first light. They are probably half way across the desert toward Darvania.”
“So, he just left me here in bonds and fled?”
“No. He left with great threats that you were not to be touched. He even left his carriage for you to ride in, until you got better. Then he said that Joan could ride in it the rest of the way to Darvania.”
“She is still with the caravan? Is Decebal mad? How could he risk getting her hurt or even killed like that?”
“I have to wonder myself, though I do not have such a great interest in it.”
“Ah! Then you have not seen her up close!” Alban gushed.
“He is probably going to try and use her for a shield against you. He did take great notice when Ryan told him about your skill against my . . . the . . . well, I guess that they are your bandits.” Wafflestonks corrected himself.
“Well, my friend, we both must get well clear from here as well. When the Effulgians get here, we may both be dead. Until I know why it was that I was being taken away from the burning towers of Effulgia’s main castle and by whom, it will be impossible to know whom to trust and who will recognize me before I should remember them. Anyone could be placed in my way, only to lure me into a trap.”
“You are surely not suggesting that I am trying to trap you!”
“Good! I had never even wanted to do so.” laughed Alban.
Just then, Alban heard Joan’s voice; it sounded quite distressed. He looked around to see where she was, but she was hidden from view. He decided that the sound was coming from Ryan’s wagon.
“Please, please, please . . .” he heard her say.
“No!” yelled Decebal, followed by a string of stuttering, slurred speech, for he was obviously very drunk.
He stumbled out of the carriage . . . well, it is much better stated that he fell, really, right on his face. From the light of the greater moon and the torches placed on the carriage, Alban could tell that his nose was bloodied quite badly.
“Actually, the moon that is called the greater moon is said by astronomers to be smaller than the small moon, but it is much farther away in its orbit around the planet.” the old king explained to the audience gathered around the fire.
“What?” asked a few of his listeners in near synchronicity.
“The moon that we call the greater moon is actually smaller than the smaller one. It just seems bigger because it is closer. Anyway, Alban was not thinking about those things (the size of the moons) at that moment. He was anxious to get clear of his present predicament and to see about getting Joan and Wafflestonks out of the basin area and out of that infernal desert.” the old king began anew.
Decebal had not noticed the fact that his nose was bleeding until one of the guards pointed it out to him.
“Look what you made me do, you crav-murdeling wench!” he yelled to Joan. “Get out here and clean me up!”
Alban found himself on his feet.
“No, I will not!” was the answer that he received from Joan.
A nearby guard came over to Alban. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked menacingly.
“Get out here now, or do I have to drag you out and have you whipped?” bellowed Decebal.
Joan just screamed in return.
“I was going to get these ropes cut off. They are really a bother.” Alban stated to the guard.
“Oh, they are, are they?” was the reply as he came closer.
Alban replied a different way. He made his hands into fists and jumped forward and up, smashing right into the guard’s jaw with both hands. The taller man fell to the ground without a vocal sound, though he was a big man and made a good thud as his huskiness hit hard on the basin floor. Alban grabbed for his sword, but the guard was not unconscious and he grabbed the hilt just as Alban was pulling it from the scabbard. The sword’s blade was still out far enough that Alban was able to cut the ropes from around his wrists. As the guard tried to pull the sword free from its scabbard, Alban grabbed the guard’s right hand with his left, trapping the blade in its sheath. Alban’s right hand grabbed a rock and then hit the guard’s head with it hard enough to send him out cold — this time.
Decebal pulled out his whip and ordered the guards to bring Joan out of the carriage.
“If you have to . . . or got to . . . yank ‘er hair out to get ‘er out here, do it!” he stammered.
Alban ran as fast as he could, but he was still weak from the loss of blood, and it was hard to get his feet to move, let alone run. It was like a nightmare in which you have no strength, but you still have to try your best to get free of the pursuing monster or monsters. By then, the guards had pulled Joan out of the carriage.
“Tie ‘er to that tree . . . er captus . . . cactsus!”
As the guards had nothing with which to tie her, they stood there for a moment, looking around as if to find a convenient desert vine (which does not grow in that particular desert). Decebal lost his patience and told them to hold her arms out with her back to him; they obliged timidly, as they knew how drunk he was. He brought the whip back, but as he tried to bring it crashing down on Joan’s back, he found that it would not budge. He pulled a couple of times, but found that it did no good. Then he turned around to see Alban there, holding the whip. He gave the whip a tug and it flew out of Decebal’s hand.
“You should know better than to attempt to beat someone of royal blood! It is against the law and could carry the penalty of death.”
“Who’s a gunna to enflorce sucha law out here?” Decebal reeked out through his clenched teeth.
The guards threw Joan to the ground, and began to draw their swords.
“Do not do it!” warned Alban.
One of them went for his sword anyway, Alban let the whip fly and it caught the guard with a loud snap on his sword hand. If only it had been the guard that was drawing his sword!
“Hey!” said the guard, wincing in pain. “I had stopped!”
The other guard also stopped in confusion. He had no way of telling if that display was on purpose, or if Alban was just horrible with a whip. The surprised look on Alban’s face gave the secret away, so he drew his sword, and began to get into a more advantageous position. Alban swung the whip again and hit Decebal in the chest with another loud crack of the whip. This time Alban covered a bit better by raising an eyebrow as if in a challenge for the guard to try him. Decebal passed out cold.
“Drop your sword!” Alban insisted.
The guard actually followed his order. As the sword fell, Alban began to sense his vision narrow, and he began to tremble. He did not pass out immediately, but he was too weak to stand any longer without doing so. Joan saw his state and ran to help him.
“Help me to get him into the wagon!” she yelled at the guard that was not whipped.
The one who had been whipped responded. The two of them each grabbed an arm and placed it around their respective shoulders. They dragged Alban to the carriage and hoisted him up into it. Then the guard placed him back on the bed and began to leave.
“I’ll need boiling water and bandages!” Joan ordered with a snarl.
“Yes, my lady.” he half-whispered. Then he offered, “I do apologize for my actions. I didn’t know you were of royal blood, or I would never have laid a finger on you.”
“I can tell that you are sincere. That one will be answered by Decebal.” answered Alban for Joan.
“My lady?” pressed the guard.
Joan took a few seconds to swallow her pride.
“That is fine.” she began. “We will have no further problems, will we?” she asked with a glance that showed a mix of compassion for the guard and a firm resolve to be respected in the future.
“That is no way to treat any woman.” insisted Alban.
“You are right. I just . . .”
“You just know how Decebal gets when he is drunk.” Joan explained for the guard.
“Yes. I suppose. It still is no excuse. Again I beg your pardon, my lady.”
“Quite so. Just get the water and bandages and we will be at peace.” she returned.
“Yes, my lady. Thank you for understanding, Lady Joan.” the guard offered as he withdrew.
Joan nodded, and then went back to attending her now perfectly professional patient. She had him turn from his side to his stomach in order to get a better look at his wound. As she lifted his shirt, she gasped at the sight. The gash had been opened again, and it looked to be badly infected.
“You could use spider webbing to help against the infection.” Alban suggested.
“What?” Joan asked. “Are you delirious?”
“I am definitely delirious in my devotion to you . . . Lady Joan.” Alban flirted.
“You can save such flattery for drunken barmaids! You are not getting out of things that easily!”
“Why would I flatter a drunken barmaid? What do you mean? Oh! I tried not to give your royal blood away. I mean, I was only trying to help. I mean . . . you were not whipped, right? Look, I care about you, and it is not just because you are the only woman that I know. I honestly cannot say if I have ever felt this way about another before . . .”
“I will not stand by and watch as you put your life in jeopardy time and time again!” Joan interrupted, whisper-scolding between clenched teeth so as not to be heard outside of the carriage but still convey great displeasure.
“Then we understand each other! Tell me how Decebal was not going to have you lashed because of your involvement with me. Tell me that you were not going to take the beating for my sake!” Alban countered. Then he calmed himself a bit and said, “I am sorry to have to break this to you again, Joan, but there is love between us. Worse yet, it is a selfless love. I would easily lay down my life for you . . . and I believe that you would do the same for me.”
Great tears welled up inside of those gorgeous eyes that made Joan’s face the envy of the greater moon. Soon streams of tears were flowing down her soft, fragile cheeks.
“I was jesting about that being bad news, Joan. I happen to be ecstatic at the thought.” Alban began. Then a realization escaped his mouth before he could stop it, “You are betrothed . . . to a king!”
Great sobs came from Joan as she hid her face from Alban’s view. Alban tried to reach out to her in comfort, but had not the strength. Joan saw his outstretched hand and shrank away.
“You had to ruin everything! Do you think that I did not notice the feelings that grew within my own breast? Do you think that I have not been tortured at the notion of falling so deeply in love with . . . with a slave! It has tormented my soul from the minute you first saved my life at the raiding of my caravan as I traveled to meet my future husband, a skirmish which you obviously do not remember. I have since lost count how many times you have saved my life.”
“You have saved my life, as well, probably more times than I remember.”
“Stop it!” Joan sobbed. “You have made it all melt before my eyes! The whole world that was before me! We were to go away together — somewhere no one knew us at all. You speak foreign languages, as do I. We could have blended in to the fabric of some countryside and lived out our days in peace as man and wife. You just could not keep that mouth of yours shut.”
“No. I could not.” Alban countered. “I could not sit and watch as you were whipped for having helped me as you have. I could not be held by bonds or sickness. That is the veritable truth!”
“Hang your truth! The truth is that I have never been more happy than I have been as I attended to a slave’s wounds — the slave that loved me and whom I loved most dearly! You have melted my dreams away into water that is slipping through my fingers!”
“You, dear Joan, have warmed my heart so that it burns brightly within me! I could never look back on these days with any degree of sorrow.” Alban paused a moment and then added softly, “I do not mean to make things any more difficult for you, Joan. As for the truth, that is all that has really spilled out of your heart in this matter. No real harm has been done by our admission of feelings, one for another.”
“Can we still just leave and find a place where we can live in peace?”
“I am sorry, Joan. It could be, from what Wafflestonks has told me, that there is war brewing in Effulgia. It could easily be so in other lands as well. For all I know your abduction (at least from your kingdom’s point of view) could be at the heart of it. Could you live in peace knowing that, by doing so, many families would suffer the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons in order to win your peace? I know that you could not. You are too noble for that.”
“But they would not know that I am nobility!” argued Joan in despair.
“I was speaking of the character trait!” Alban feigned laughter and then lowered his head in sadness, saying, “And you know it!”
“How did you know, anyway?”
“That you are an honorable person? You show . . .”
“No!” Joan interrupted. “I mean, how did you know that I am of royal birth?”
“I had forgotten that I had a most beautiful dream one night, in which you were to be married. You wore a bright crown upon your head and you looked like a most precious angel. There was great joy in your eyes as you took your husband’s hand in marriage. Though, in my dream, your hand was scarred; yet your king loved you all the more. I awoke with such a great peace deeply emanating from my heart, that I must believe it will come true. I am sorry that it must be so, but God has deemed you fit to be happily married with that man. Shall I attempt to turn back the hand of God? Will you?”
Joan’s tears flowed even more freely. She could not decide exactly how to feel at the moment. She ran out of the carriage, leaving the door wide open.
“Joan! Joan! I was not finished!” Alban yelled after her, but she would not turn back.
Alban thought long and hard on that last bit. He could not understand why he had been shown that particular dream. He tried to figure out what it had to do with him. That was when Alban’s strength left him and he either slept or went unconscious.
Dusk was stealing across the evening sky. A full array of fiery yellow, orange, and red tones engulfed the castle towers, leaving only the development of deep, dark shadows in their fading. The courtyards and gardens were all empty. A solemn silence swept through the still stone structures. Great billows of smoke filled the air, rolling into blinding billows that blotted out the vision, leaving its viewer in complete darkness. A loud voice that seemed to shake the whole earth rose from the darkness and said, “Awake and remember!”
Then, all of a sudden, another fire was shown to him. It seemed to be the glowing white hot coals of the fire of a blacksmith. Metal was heated in a large crucible and poured out into a mold. After the metal cooled, it was taken by the blacksmith and then folded and forged into a blade with great pummeling blows of the skilled artisan. At length, a blade came forth that was unimpressive by the looks of it, but when wielded, it smashed a gorgeously jeweled and shiny blade.
A young, recently freed slave awoke from his dream in a cold sweat. He slowly opened his eyes and looked up at the multitude of stars that were so bright that they seemed to dangle just out of reach above him. He tried again to think as to why the dream had such great emotions attached to it. There was also the growing curiosity to know why the dream had changed this time. It had always been exactly the same every time before, except for the addition of one or more items, such as the swords.
Suddenly, Alban remembered that he had left consciousness inside of the wagon (Ryan’s wagon, to be more precise). Now that he had found it out under the dark desert sky, he wondered as to why . . . again. He felt his back to see how things were holding up. Someone had bandaged the area quite nicely. He had to wonder if it had been Joan that had done this handiwork. If it were she, then she had been improving in leaps and bounds, because the bandage was good and tight. Alban had not wanted to complain about it before, but the previous applications of bandages were lacking in compressive strength. Alban knew that it was probably due to the fact that she had not wanted to cause further pain to her patient. Upon that recollection, Alban decided that it was most likely not Joan’s work, but that of a professional, unless she were still sore about the slip of his tongue regarding her noble pedigree.
“I done that job for ye!” he heard a voice say with great pride. “I served some time in the Effulgian army. They teached us . . . we needed know how to treat wounds so we help friends when they get hurt.”
“Quite so!” agreed Alban in Effulgian. Then he added in the dialect of the thieves (which was something very close to Goff, though he could not remember the name of the language), “I do speak the dialect of the thieves.”
“I not use those words!” explained the voice, notably upset.
“I do apologize.” Alban tried in Effulgian. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“Ye not know my’s voice? Ye not remember you old friend Garrve? We fight many times in battles!”
“Did you say Garrve?”
“Yes, now ye remembers!”
“No, I not . . . I do not remember. I simply remember that the old leader of the clan mentioned your name. He said that you and OoftHall were competitors for leadership within the two factions. You see, I received a blow to the head a while back. I can only remember as far back as a few days . . . well maybe a couple of weeks ago, depending on today’s date . . . and the date of the day that I can remember. Oh, that makes no sense!”
“It make sense to me! I know mans that have same prollem. Two mans! The git hit on head, not remember nothings. Iss hard for them remember. One remember after time, other never know who iss.”
“Well, I do hope to get back all of my memory. It seems as though I remember the back gate . . . well, I remember one thing.”
“Ah! Ye prolly git memories back! That man remembers after times, he remembers one thing, and then other, then it all comes back!”
“You say that we are old friends?”
“Yes. We knows eachothers two years. Ye make great chief before. We so glad you is back! Ye teach us many things. We grow strong with ye as leader, not weak like with last chief. Ye . . .You teach us build homes, have family, be strong for them. You give us hope for good. Last chief say, ‘Kill, take, destroy!’ I not like him.”
“Wafflestonks said those things?”
“Your leader that I defeated, what do you call him?”
“We calls him Ailman. He comes to us drunk like fishes! We call him Ailman because. I do not talk of him. We knew him little time. I talk . . . I am speaking of the chief before. He was no good. He did not like us speak Effulgian. We from Effulgian army, were treated bad.”
“I cannot place that accent of yours, where are you from?”
“I? I come from far across the oceans. I live . . . have lived in this continent for five years. I learned a very small bit Darvanian, but more know Effulgian. Soon ye, I mean, soon you . . . will remember.”
“I hope so. Though, it has forced me to develop my sense of conscious a bit — to detect other’s motives and such. It has actually been a luxury. I have to wonder if I should have been so keen in my feeling out the truth if I had full use of my memory. I must believe that, because of my recent experiences, I have had to rely on inner senses more than others do. I may be able to spot a lie much more easily because I am not emotionally tied to previous experiences. You should try losing your memory! Tell me, how is it that I left this band, if I was your leader? Why would I do such a thing?”
“Iss trap! I mean, it was a trap. They said you have to go help your friend from Effulgia or he will die.”
“Wait! Who said that?”
“Who say . . . said what?”
“That I had to go help my friend?”
“The man who went with you did say that!”
“Go on what?”
“Please continue with your story.”
“Ah, yes. Well, you go . . . went with that man and he said . . . “
“It was OoftHall, was it not?”
“It was . . . not . . . Uhhhh . . . He go with you.”
“Yes or no? Was it OoftHall that went with you, I mean, with me?”
“Yes! I say he went with you.”
“Was he the one that told me of my friend?”
“Yes. And he was the one who went with you to find friend. How do you know? You remember?”
“No. He just has . . . had become famous for hiding in wait and trying to kill someone when his back was turned. He tried to kill me twice before he finally died.”
“I saw him try and kill you before. He tried again? It seems like him.” Garrve replied with much improving Effulgian. “Anyway, he goes . . . went with you to help your friend. He come back and told us that you was . . . were dead. I am sorry about my Effulgian . . . I have not practiced it much until a few days ago. Old . . . the old leader not . . . would not let us speak it. I know that you have taught me much about the language.”
“Wait! How long ago did I leave you? It must have been quite some time if you are so unpracticed in Effulgian.”
“It has . . . been almost two years. I knew you for two and a half before . . .”
“Before my apparent betrayal.”
“I am trying to think for the life of me . . . how could I have trusted someone like OoftHall?”
“You did not. You just have . . .had no choice. You told me that same thing. I believed you. You would not have gone if you did not think that there was a chance to help your friend.”
“Did this friend of mine have a name?”
“I am sure that he did, but you did not mention it. Well, you did not say what the name of the man was, exactly, but you did . . . mentioned that word that you used . . . Waffles . . .”
“Now that is information that I can use. Thank you.”
“Wait. There is more. OoftHall pronounced it wrong. He said . . .”
“So that is why he was eager to kill me! At the very least, it added fuel to the fire.”
“Do you know if OoftHall knew the other man that he called Wafflesgonks?”
“He must know him. He is . . . used particulars that no one else knew about Wafflesgonks.”
“I am sorry. I believe that you are under the impression that OoftHall is still alive; he is not. He tried to fall on me from behind . . .”
“And at last possible second ye . . . you stab . . . stabbed him without turning around?!”
“Yes! That is remarkable! How did you know?”
“How did I know? How did I know? I teached . . . taught you that move!” Garrve laughed a bit too loudly for Alban’s taste.
“Well, then I have you to thank for that one. I am in your debt.” smiled Alban.
“No! I still owe ye . . . you for many times that you saved my life. You have taught me much about the art of battle. Our peoples use similar practices, but you have seen much war as of late. We enjoy peace in my homeland. We have enjoyed it for nearly a century. We have a saying . . . well, it’s a motto, really, that goes: ‘Paze dan dían si ganari’ It means . . .”
“It means ‘Peace to the days is earned’, literally, but its overall meaning would be better conveyed by saying, ‘Give peace to the days by earning it’.” Alban stated.
“You speak the Living Words!” gasped Garrve in amazement and then embarrassment from having used the name of the language which was only to be used on certain occasions. “Effulgian is loosely based on them, but I have never known a man on this continent that has understood a single word when I use them, let alone the literal and corrected translation of them. You never used them before! Why did you never speak to me in those words?”
“Why do you speak such fluid Effulgian now, when only seconds ago it was broken to pieces?”
“I suppose that, remembering the language of my homeland gave me great hope!”
“I suppose that it should! I remember small bits and pieces of my homeland. Actually, I remember one small bit. I remember a gate which I have been told is the back gate of the castle at Effulgia City, and its towers were ablaze as I was carted away, nothing more.”
“Remembering my homeland fills me with hope and comfort, but also with a longing for things that are passed by and gone. Those are feelings that we can share.”
“When one rends the bitter airs, it is also passed and then gone!” Alban joked. “Though, it does linger about if there is no wind to blow it away!”
The two thieves laughed a good chuckle. Garrve’s eyes shone with a glow of friendship. It was the kind that only men that had fought and bled together could share. Alban noticed the look and wished that he could return the same.
“You seem to be the same as before. I mean you do not act any differently.” Garrve stated matter-of-fact-ly.
“I feel things that I cannot explain. I have feelings attached to certain things, but have no idea why. I can fight well enough, but I do not know how it is that I came to be so well trained.”
“I may be able to help you with that. Ye . . . you told me that in Effulgia you had relative peace for the space of twenty or thirty years. There was only the occasional skirmish with the raiding parties from various nearby kingdoms. You had some practice as the head of your defensive parties . . . or troops would be a better word. According to your own stories, you came to . . .”
“Chief!” yelled a voice.
“Go on, Garrve, I am listening.” Alban urged.
“Do you not think that ye . . . you should see what your clansman need . . . needs?”
“Chief!” came the voice again.
“Oh! Right! I forgot that I am the . . . Yes, what is wanted?”
“Well, the men are getting anxious. They wish to know what they should do to the prisoner.”
“Of what prisoner do you speak?”
“Of Ailman, of course. What is his punishment?”
“And Ailman is . . ?”
“The old leader of the clan that you beat in mortal combat.”
“I hardly know what to call the man, first it’s Cefús, then he calls himself Wafflestonks, now I am told that his name is Ailman. For what do you wish to punish him, anyway?”
“He . . . well, we just don’t like him.”
“What is the usual penalty for not being liked?”
“Well, OoftHall said . . .”
“Speaking of unlikeable characters, has OoftHall ever been your leader? Did he make the skies to thunder or the earth to quake while he was alive? He is dead! That’s food to ponder. However, should there be a real crime that this Ailman has committed, let his accuser or accusers, as the case may be, come forth.”
“He has accused you of not having your wits about you, running with the slaver company that has left us here with no horses, and consorting with the company owner’s daughter!”
“They have gone?” Alban asked in noted washes of woe. He then continued, “Parts of what you say that he says are true, I would say . . .”
“I have said no such things!” growled Wafflestonks as he approached. “I merely stated that he had lost his memory, that he had been traveling with the slavers, and that he was simply protecting the young lady when we attacked him. I only mentioned it because you were going on about how he had cut his own men to shreds, as if he had done some great evil to his own men!”
“There is still one problem with all of this!” sputtered the man, whose name had not been given to Alban. “How can he be the Chieftain of our clan if he has not slain the old leader, Ailman?”
“You shall call me Cefús, or Wafflestonks, as it is my last name! I was not drunk when I came to you, as I have explained. I had a fever from being bit by a large puff spider. They have been known to kill grown men from time to time. I was lucky to have survived. Look, I still have the scars to prove it.”
Wafflestonks lifted his pant leg and exposed his left shin. Running up the leg were the telltale signs of a puff spider attack. You see, when they attack, there is no prolonged bite as with some species, but a long line of small “nibbles” as it were. The venom is spread in a large line effecting larger amounts of tissue as the poison spreads, if untreated. His scars only ran about three inches, which was rare, as the spider got its name by being so quick, that at times, all that is seen of them is the puff of dust that they leave behind as they sprint out of sight. For that reason, once attacked, it was very difficult for the victim to stop the assault until well after major amounts of damage were done.
“I was lucky enough that I was trying to close my pant leg, just as the spider shot up my leg. Otherwise, I could have lost it to nerve damage.” Wafflestonks explained.
“Quit changing the cripey subject!” the accuser interrupted. “There must be blood for the passage of rights for the chief of the clan!”
“I did let out quite a bit of his blood!” exclaimed Alban.
“Not enough!” yelled the man. “The old leader must die for another to take his place!”
“Yes, and what of the law that speaks of inciting discordance among the clan?” Alban half gloated.
Most of the men (for a good many had gathered to see what was going on at this late hour) stood looking at each other as if Alban had spoken to them in some foreign tongue. Some just nodded as if they understood. When asked what Alban had meant, they just looked about as if to find the solution elsewhere.
“Fighting! Brawls! Rioting! What do your laws say about that? If one man tries to stir up cause for bloodshed, what happens to him?” Alban expounded.
“Bawheed, you have played the goad for suffering too many times!” Garrve began in the thieves’ language, which Alban then remembered to be Goffs’arn. “I believe that you have also tangled with the wrong man, for if you tangle with the old chief, you tangle with us all!”
“I thought that you didn’t even like this Ailm . . . Wafflesgonks!” Bawheed bellowed back, just starting to taste the smack of doom growing in his mouth.
“I never said that I do not like him. I said that I was withholding judgment of him until such time that we should know where he stands on things. Besides, I was talking about the old chief that you have come to accuse. This is the same man before you that OoftHall lead away to his capture. I do not know if OoftHall left him for dead, or if he profited by the selling him into slavery. I do know, however, that this is the same chief that had command of our clan until . . . what was the old leader’s name?”
“Ail . . . Wafflesgonks?” a few of the men asked in nearly complete synchronicity.
“No! The one before him . . . anyway, this man here was the chief before him! This is the one that OoftHall tricked into following him into a trap, and came back with a story that a boarve had gotten him. Well, just look at him!”
The men all gathered in more closely in order to do just that. One by one they came forward to stare him in the eyes and then pass by that the others could have a look.
A few different theories were offered like, “There is something different about this man.” or, “I mean, he looks like the leader, but his nose is too straight.”, and, “He has a beard, too. The other leader didn’t!”
“It is the old leader, I tell you! Bring a torch so that you can see him better.” bellowed Garrve.
As the torch was being fetched, there were still other cries of such things like, “This man is much too big to be the old leader!” and the like. When the torch finally arrived and the men could see Alban’s eyes, there was a big gasp that arose from a small majority of the men as if they had seen a man’s ghost or, perhaps, a man who had been raised from the dead. Still others demanded more proof.
One man pleaded, “If this be the man that was our chief before, then he will definitely bear the markings on his back where he was whipped as a slave! I saw him once without his shirt, and he had scars all over his back. If this be him, let him show us his back!”
“I personally dressed the wound on his lower back. I can assure you that he wears the marks. I, too, was put off by the straight nose. Maybe someone has broken it in a fashion so as to fix it straight again, I do not know. But I can tell you that he has the same eyes and the scars of a slave that has been whipped!”
Alban turned so that the men could see his back. They gasped again, but in greater volume and number.
Convinced of the inevitable truth of the evidences shown, the men asked what he thought that they should do, now that the sun was down and they had been left stranded. Alban thought for a moment, said a quick prayer in his heart that he should know what to do and that they be delivered from their hardship, and then an idea came to him. He got a gleam in his eye and asked if they had any weapons left among them. They referred him to the hidden stash that they had found in the basin. They were outdated and dilapidated, but would work in a dire situation. They had decided to keep the weapons hidden outside the gates, where any former owners should not be able to find them and use them against the thieves, and on the off chance that they should be overrun or left to die in the desert.
Garrve informed Alban, “We do not have any means of transportation, though.”
Alban asked, “How long ago did the slavers leave?”
“They left about an hour ago, just before dark.” Garrve offered.
“Then they cannot have gotten far!” Alban exclaimed. “From the looks of things, Decebal is a creature of comfort. He will not have wanted to ride at night without the moonlight to guide him. If we hurry, we may be able to catch up with them and regain our horses, and maybe even capture the whole caravan!”
“Are you thinking of the whole, or just yourself?” asked Bawheed. “I know that you are after that young lady that they have traveling with them!”
“Well, I must admit that I should like to have her along for the ride, but we will be without transportation, rations, and even water, as it stands. We could also receive needed strength from some of the slaves if they should like to join us. Should the Effulgians overtake us, we will need their strength!”
“The Effulgians!? Why should they bother us? We have done nothing to them!” whined a small, young thief.
“It has come to my attention that there has been an Effulgian detail sent to trap us — possibly to take us back to the gallows or offer us up as a present to the Emperor of Darvania. I should hate to be here when they arrive, but if I am, I should take some comfort in the fact that we have a few more men to fight them.”
Garrve stood up with a sword in his hand that he had hidden in the green sand in the bottom of the basin, and yelled, “Who is with us?!”
Most cheered until they realized that they were still penned in at the bottom of the basin. They lost heart for a moment, but Alban was soon scaling a large crack that led up the side wall and up onto the path that led to the front of the gate. He found a rope ladder that had been left there after the OoftHall incident and tied one end to the trunk of a tree that overlooked the basin. He let down the ladder, and soon men were climbing up the wall and locating the weapons that would be needed for the assault.
Alban began to worry that in taking back their horses the thieves might take things a bit too far. He thought of Joan and how he could not stomach the casual thought that anything should happen to her. He also puzzled on exactly what should be done with the slaver company upon reaching them. Should he set the slaves free, what consequences should that hold in store for the thieves and for him? He told himself, “I guess that I shall have to find such things out as the plot may unfold.”
“I should like that you hurry if you wish to survive this ordeal! They will only make camp until just before dawn, and then they will be quit of these parts. Our only hope is to get to their camp before then, or we shall burn up in the desert sun.” Alban said in Effulgian.
“All who speak Effulgian know this.” Garrve rebutted. “It was we that decided to go this journey into this abominable desert. The others have scarce traveled through these parts — many of them never before!”
“I do say that your grammar improves by the minute!” Alban responded.
“Yes, the rust is coming off quite nicely, but our situation, as you have pointed out, is not.”
“Quite so. Well, we had better get going. I hope that we are not too late!”
They began to follow the tracks that were left by the parting members of the slaver caravan. Alban noticed by the light of the greater moon that was now shining, as the clouds that had shrouded it were now dissipating, that the tracks consisted of the desert wagons (judging from the wide wheel markings), two chariots, some horses to pull them, and a few other horses just for single riders that must have been pulling the stolen horses behind them without riders.
“This is a trap!” Alban blurted out, before he could stop it.
“What makes you to think so?” asked a man nearby.
“To be a slaver and a traveler of this wild desert, Decebal cannot be a mindless simpleton. Yes, he was drunk, but something led him to leave close to darkness, which I have heard that he does not like at all. He must know that we would be forced to follow after him. He has either flown out far beyond our reach, or he must be lying in wait for us to arrive to his trap. Look how these tracks separate here! The wagons and most of the horses turn and go up over these hills, while the other tracks continue running in a more or less straight line. I wish that I knew what he has planned!” Alban explained . . . and then brought up more questions. He continued, “He will probably have a fire going soon; he is a creature of comfort.”
Just as he was finished stating that last part, the party came over the ridge of the hill up which they were walking and saw fires in the camp that Decebal had made a good way off in the distance. They ducked back behind the large sand dune, and worked their way to the far side of the camp before they worked back in towards the fires. As they approached the camp, Alban began to make an account of things in his head. All of the wagons and two chariots traveling with them seemed to be there, at least the ones that had been leaving tracks. The horses had been tied together nearby. It looked to be an easy grab that could be done quickly, and they would be gone.
“There are no guards!” Alban and Garrve stated in such synchronous tones that it later caused an argument between two of the other men. One was adamant that Garrve had said it, the other Alban. When they argued it did not matter, though, and it really does not now.
Alban and Garrve looked at each other with great wide eyes, and then looked around to see if they could figure out what was going on, or from where the trap would be sprung! Alban noticed two sets of tracks in the sand that meandered off behind a clump of brush, and then turned back around, going out of the camp.
“Someone was watching them from here! Keep your weapons at the ready!” Alban whispered only loudly enough for the rest of the men to hear. “Fan out, and move in groups of four. In this darkness, we’ll just have to spring this thing in order to find out what is going on.”
They walked forward softly and silently in the silvery green glittered sand. The camp lay more silent still, as they moved in to investigate the situation. There was the sound of a flap of fabric that occasionally danced in the breeze, a pot that clanged where it was hung on the side of one of the wagons, nothing more. All of a sudden, there was a great rushing of winds, and a great roar was heard throughout the camp. Some of the men froze with fear; others whirled around to see where the sound originated. It was from Decebal’s great wagon.
Alban smiled a big smile and motioned for the men to get some rope and tie the men up that were outside. He then went straight for Decebal’s wagon with his sword raised to strike. He approached cautiously, wanting the element of surprise to be on his side. Upon reaching the door, he quickly unlatched it and swung it open, expecting an attack to be sprung upon him instantly. None came. There was silence. Then came a great big roar louder than the first! Decebal was sound asleep and was snoring like a greater boar. Alban was surprised that he hadn’t wakened the whole camp with that last bellowing snort, but they were all sound asleep as well.
“The flight from your attack yesterday, and the journey back to us, and then the stretch here must have tired them out!” Alban whispered to Garrve.
“Our attack was two days ago!” said Garrve, much more loudly than Alban had wanted, for he gave a look that said as much. “Oh, they are not going to wake up! You said it yourself, exhaustion has overtaken them.”
Alban sent three men into Decebal’s wagon to tie him up, and, if they could lift the fat pig, to bring him out where they could keep an eye on him. They did so, and, though the desert nights were quite cool, they were sweating profusely by the time they were done. They even dropped Decebal on his head, and did not even wake, which Alban thought to be quite odd.
Then, as the winds subsided, Alban noticed a strong odor in the air. He faintly remembered that it was the same that he had smelled when he was on the supply wagon. It was misery’s sorrow! He looked around to surmise from where the odor emanated. He noticed after a bit of scouring the landscape with his eyes, that there were live plants growing all around the camp.
He ran to Ryan’s wagon to see how Joan fared. She was sleeping soundly, but awoke when Alban called her name. He climbed up on the wagon and began to give orders.
“Everyone listen up!” Alban bellowed at the top of his lungs. “We have to get all of the animals and all of the men out of this area, NOW! Load them all up and get them out of here! These desert plants with the flowers may be beautiful to look at, but they are poisonous to men when they are exposed to their perfume for extended amounts of time! We have to move now!”
With that, the men all began to gather the horses and pile one or two of the sleeping men on the backs of the steeds, like sacks of grain to be hauled to the mill. Alban noticed another supply wagon (a different one than the one that had carried him before) and went to see what that afforded them in their current predicament. To his disgust, he found more of the misery’s sorrow plants that had been dug up and potted for transplanting elsewhere! Alban could hardly fathom the purpose for which Decebal had been having his men doing such a thing. Perhaps it was to be harnessed as some form of tonic, or for the poison’s sake. For some reason, he knew that there were some of the clans to the south that used it as a tranquilizer on extremely large animals. The thought of weaponry crossed Alban’s mind, but he could not explain it. As it was, there was no time for him to debate it in his mind.
“I need a whole bunch of you to empty this wagon of all of the flowers. Not one must remain! Then we may load some of these men aboard, and get them out of here! Go!”
Seeing that all was accomplished, he took the reins and slapped the horses’ behinds which started them out at a trot. He slapped them again, harder this time, and they took off as fast as their legs would carry them. When they were out of reach of the noxious fumes, Alban let them ease off a bit and slowed their pace to a trot before stopping them completely.
As he turned to see how the evacuation was going, he saw a few of the men coming with a string of horses with their riders slung into heaps upon their backs.
Garrve came riding up and said, “Some of the men are having a hard time getting things done, we may have to leave some of their men behind.”
Alban jumped down from the wagon as he said, “Guard the woman in this wagon with your life, or I’ll have yours!”
“There is no need for such threats!” Garrve responded defensively. “We are not Barbarians, you know!”
“I suppose that I am just used to dealing with such. I do apologize!”
“May I use your horse to organize the rest of the men?”
“Yes, but be careful, sir. You do not know how powerful these flowers can be.” said Garrve, as he dropped down from his horse.
“I have had experience with them in the past, or I should never have recognized them.” Alban answered back.
“I suppose so.”
With that, Alban grabbed the reins, put one foot in the stirrup, and was on the saddle in a flash. He turned the animal around and galloped back to the encampment. When he arrived, he noticed that some of the men were getting a bit drowsy. They tried to run in place so as to stay awake.
“Men, just get on the horses, and get going! I’ll load these last few men onto the carts.” Alban ordered.
He gave his horse to a man that seemed about to pass out cold. When he actually did, Alban slung him up on the back of the stallion and slapped his hind quarters. The horse jolted off toward the others, carrying his unconscious rider to safety. Alban piled the last three men on the supply wagon and climbed up into the driver’s seat. He gave a slap of the reins to the oxen that were yoked to the wagon, and they started to pull, but soon quit trying before the wagon had even budged. He gave a harder slap, but the same effect was achieved. He started to wonder if the oxen were being affected by the flowers. If so he was in quite the quandary now. He fought off panic, and then remembered to let off the brake. He tried again, and the oxen, though reluctant to try again, seemed grateful that their driver had finally remembered something that basic. Soon they were on their way to join the others.
The oxen were slow, but Alban did not mind in the least. It was a welcome rest. The rescue party had only walked for about three hours, but his wound was giving him fits. The adrenaline had worn off, probably yesterday, the soreness was setting in, and he was bleeding again. It had made the walk much more difficult than Alban had cared to admit. Still, all in all, it may have actually helped to get up and get moving again. It was feeling a bit better as he rode along. At length, he was nearing the place where he had left the others, feeling quite relieved that they had been delivered from their troubles in their time of need. He was not sure if he had done it right before or exactly how a prayer was said, but he offered another one, thanking God for their delivery from being stranded in the desert.
No sooner had he ended his prayer, when he looked up and saw that the men were all asleep on the ground. Well, some were still in the wagons, some hunched over on their horses, but all were asleep. Even two horses had succumbed to the venomous vapors and lie there on the ground motionless, except for their deep, deep breathing.
Alban looked around to find a place to build a fire. He gathered some dried oxen chips that must have come from the same type that pulled the supply wagon, because they were quite large. He was about to shred some of it up to make a sort of tinder, when he heard a voice.
“Do not make a fire!” it said in a whisper.
Alban looked around to see who had said it. The light of the moon made it easy to make out the faces of all those who were close enough to have such a whisper to be heard by Alban. No one seemed to be alert enough to have said anything, so Alban went back to the shredding of the tinder.
“Do not make a fire!” came another whisper.
The hair on the back of Alban’s neck stood on end. He wondered if he were dreaming, because he did not seem to be very drowsy at all, yet all of the others slept on.
“Who is there?” cried Alban.
No one answered.
“Come on! Who is doing that? Garrve, is it you?”
Again there was no answer. Alban was starting to get a bit . . . out of sorts, to put it mildly. He was in the middle of the desert, basically alone — except that now he had around seventy unconscious patients, by his estimation. Oh yeah, and he was hearing things! Wonderful!!!
Alban was about to laugh out loud, when a great, overwhelming, and immense peace moved upon him, and penetrated his heart, filling every fiber with hope.
“You must not make a fire. I will protect you if you do what I say.” the voice said softly, yet it was as though it shook his very frame as it spoke. “You will need no fire against the creatures of the wild. Now go and ready your camp against the coming storm.”
Alban put down the . . . stuff that he had in his hands, rose to his feet, and began to prepare for the coming storm. He found some tarps in the supply wagon , and made a makeshift lean-to out of several of the wagons, some of them put together to make larger areas for his patients. He had even driven some of them up right to where a pile of men were resting, so as not to have to move them all. He staked the tarps down to the ground, using more stakes than he normally would. He just had a feeling that the storm would be a huge one. In fact, he could see it in his mind as the voice spoke to him. He knew that he would be lucky to get all of his patients out alive. At the same time he knew that it would probably not happen that way. He still wanted to give all a fighting chance. When the sides were all staked down, he shoveled sand on all of the edges to further weigh them down against the winds.
He tied the animals up as best he could and hobbled them, thinking that they might fight each other in their panic. Still, it seemed to him that they already knew what was coming and were used to having such things as hobbling done in preparation for a storm. As the storm approached, however, they did start to become uneasy. Alban could not worry about that now. He had made the best preparations that he could. As a last thought, he decided to put a tarp over Decebal’s wagon where Joan was sleeping — just to be safe and afford her any comfort that was possible. He staked the tarp down and threw sand on it, just as he did with the lean-tos. He got up into Ryan’s wagon sat down in the bed. It had all taken him a couple of hours, but for being the only one that was awake at the time, he felt that he had done a good job. In spite of the lack of water, he had done his best.
Alban could only wonder why he had heard that voice and what was about to befall them as he climbed up in Ryan’s wagon and fell in an exhausted heap on the bed. He shuddered to think of what may lie ahead in the wake of the storm.
Sleep took hold of him, but just before it did, he realized that it was from the loss of blood, and not from the flower’s noxious vapors. He wondered about that as his eyes closed and dreamed the most peaceful dream that he had ever dreamt since he could remember. Of course, that was not that long ago.
“Alban!” was the next thing that Alban heard. It was Joan’s voice. “What am I ever going to do with you? Bleeding all over the place all of the time, and then passing out! You are going to earn yourself a reputation that way!”
Though Alban was awake, he could not quite tell if Joan was joking or if she was really angry with him (the last bit made him think that it was the former), but he kept his eyes shut, just to be safe. He did not want to get into any trouble that he could avoid. “Besides,” he thought to himself, “it had made her change her mind in the past. Maybe it would work again.”
Suddenly, Alban felt a strange sensation, and he opened his eyes, only to look down and see Joan working on the wound on his back. He noticed a bandage on her left hand, but his mind was caught up to other things at the moment. He felt free . . . pain free . . . carefree . . . just free. Suddenly he saw a bright white light, and he was taken from Joan, which troubled him, but he knew it was something that must happen.
He found himself face to face with a man who was strangely familiar to him, but he could not quite guess as to why. The man called him by name and he recognized him. That’s as far as I can tell you about that experience, as that is all that I have been allowed to let you know.
I can tell you how Joan continued working on his wound. She undid the old bandage, which she studied to be able to repeat the work of art that Garrve had so proficiently created earlier. She washed the wound and stitched up the part of the gash that had come open. It was not until she had painstakingly dressed the wound completely that she noticed that Alban was not breathing. She shook him in horror.
“Alban! Alban! You cannot do this to me!” she screamed, but Alban could not hear her. He had gone into the next realm.
“NO!! NOOOO!!!!”Joan cried in desperate horror. “Why, Lord, WHY? Please, just give him back to me, and I shall serve thee all the days of my life! Ask me what thou wilt, and I will do it, just send him back to me! Please, please . . .”
Frantically, she opened the door. The whole landscape seemed to be changed. It had been hard to find the way from Decebal’s wagon to Ryan’s where Alban had been sleeping. She shouted for someone to help her. Only Garrve answered her.
“My dear lady, how may I help you?”
“It is Alban! He is . . . I think he is dead! Come and help him, please!”
“Well, if he is dead, there is no helping him now.” Garrve began, and then saw the look in Joan’s eyes. “My lady, I have started a fire would you like to have a bit of the left over stew that I found?”
“Come and help him NOW!” roared Joan, standing the hair up on the back of Garrve’s neck.
“Yes, my lady! Let me see him. That is a good idea.” Garrve returned sheepishly.
He went into the cabin of the carriage. Joan followed closely behind him. They both looked him over for signs of life. Garrve put the shiny blade of a knife up to his nose to see if moisture would form on it from any imperceptible breath that might linger. No moisture formed. He felt for a pulse, but found none.
“I am most sorry, my lady. I am afraid that you are right. He is . . .”
“Do not even say it! He will be alright, you will see.” she sobbed bitterly.
“My lady, we have lost a lot of men today. I can only imagine how we got here. It was probably he that helped us get clear of where we were and made these . . . tents out of tarps. I think . . . that he may have given his life in saving us, my lady. We need to be about, looking for other survivors, helping them out. We can just go eat, and when you have your strength up, we can get to the task at hand. Some of these men were buried in the storm. That saves us some work and time.”
They made their way to the fire that Garrve had made and sat down as they waited for the stew to heat. Joan felt numb. She sat there with a gaze that would have pulled the light from the very air, had she been able to receive it. She could not be comforted by all of Garrve’s best attempts, which were pitiful at best. She did feel, at length some alarm that she did not feel anything. She wondered what was wrong with her. She just could not wrap her mind around the fact that . . . well, she would not let that cold stone grow in her heart for the moment. She sat there waiting for tears that did not come. At length, part of her felt immense guilt that she was shedding no tears, part felt that she had been stupid to have ever loved a slave. They never had any control of their lives and . . . to an extent no one does. Thinking those thoughts, she sat quietly and waited for the sorrow and pain from the loss of Alban to hit her.
“My lady?” asked Garrve, interrupting her daze.
“How do you know me?” he asked.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Well, I cannot remember if we know each other. Did I know that man that was in the wagon with you?”
“Ah! It is the misery’s sorrow! It has taken your memory.” explained Joan.
“There are rare and toxic flowers that grow in this desert that are called misery’s sorrow. Decebal had some great interest in them. I think that it was the Darvanians that sent him after them. He was going to take a shipment of them to the Darvanians so he had some in the supply wagon where Alban had been riding . . .”
“The man . . . in the carriage now?”
The tears finally came to Joan’s eyes. She wept until there was a good, tight lump in her throat before she finally gained any semblance of composure again.
“Was he your husband?” asked Garrve.
“No. He was not. There was no way that I can see that he could have been. I wanted to run to some far away realm where no one knew us, but somehow he found out that I am of royal blood, a fact that cannot be hidden now. How he got wind of that, I will never know. No one but Decebal knew in the entire caravan. In fact, no one else in all of the slaver company knew. The man loses all memory of who he is and from where he came, and he spills the secret that I am of royal blood! . . . That is a fine mess of stew for you!”
“No, my lady, it is not at all. But it is edible and will be hot in a moment.” Garrve explained.
“Dear Sir, I was referring to the mess . . . Oh! Never mind!”
After a minute or two of silence, Garrve got up the courage to ask, “My lady, please, do not be angry with me, but may I know who I am?”
“Maybe someday. I cannot tell, for I do not know. I do suspect that you are not from Effulgia.”
“What makes you to say that?”
“Well, have you noticed your accent and how it differs from mine?”
“Yes. Why is that?”
“Well, as I was saying, we are speaking Effulgian, and it is not your native tongue. It is not mine, either, I guess.” Joan explained.
“Oh, right. Well . . . how did I get here in the middle of the desert? Do you know that much?”
“Well, I did hear Decebal (he is the owner of the slaver caravan) say that he was shocked to see that a slave (Alban . . . the man in the wagon)” Joan began, as she choked back tears. “Well, anyway, Decebal said that a mere slave could not have taken five of the Elite Sentinel from Cavenland. He said that he must have been an assassin of sorts before he fell into slavery. Nordholst, the man with whom he was speaking, asked him if Alban was a political prisoner. Decebal just told him to quit whining and get back to work. It was peculiar, I must say. He knows . . . or knew something. I guess that depends upon whether or not he survived last night. Are we all that are left?”
“Oh, no, my lady! We are merely the ones that have awakened. Some sleep deeply, though . . . others are gone, I fear.”
“That is the problem with misery’s sorrow. It has to be slept off, as there is no known remedy. The victims either wake up, or they do not. There is no other way. Rarely do any of them come away with their memories, if they even live. The only ones that I know of that have retained their memories were women.” Joan illuminated.
“What could the Darvanians want with such an evil . . . weed?”
“Alban . . . spoke of some of the southern clans that used the venom as a tranquilizer for some of the greater animals. They would use it to make them sleep and then facilitate capture of the beasts for domestication purposes. He could not remember how he knew that, of course. I expect that now you can understand that quite fully.”
“You speak of him in qualities of love . . . but there is a deep respect for the man, as well. You make him seem to be . . . or have been a great man.”
Joan knew that she was going to cry as she replied, but she took a deep breath and, among sobs and sighs, said, “Yes, I must say that he was the kind of man that made all around him feel at ease. There was no self interest in his helping of others, and it was not even that he felt a sense of duty. He did things for others because he wanted them to feel special. The way he spoke to people made them better for having listened. When great problems arose, he seemed to know the solution right as the events began to unfold.”
“That is probably why we are alive right now!” offered Garrve. I looked at some of the tarps that he put over the wagons. It would have seemed overkill to stake them down with so many stakes, but were it not for the fact that he did so, many of the men now sleeping would have taken their last breath last night. He gave them a fighting chance, he did.”
“Then, you do see what I mean. Here’s a man acquainted with the dangers of misery’s sorrow, yet he does all of that . . . the whole while bleeding out his last few drops of blood. I overheard that he had become your leader by besting the old one in battle. He knew these men for a couple of days, and still he sticks his neck out . . .”
“My lady . . . what are you called?”
“They call me Joan.”
“Well, Lady Joan, I recall that I also speak a language that is called the Living Words. It is an ancient language that is hardly spoken on this continent. It is a tongue of great beauty and profound imagery. He shall have a fine verse recited over him at his funeral, I promise you. A man of such greatness deserves that, in the very least! Then we can get out of this infernal desert. And on our way to . . . Cavenland, you said?”
“I don’t know if I can go on.” Joan stated softly.
“What a cold, miserable thing to say about yourself! And you employ such frigid verbiage in the heat of this great green desert! God should and shall decide when it is your time to go. To do otherwise is to rob Him of His dominion! A lady of your caliber ought to know that much!”
“Indeed, I ought. In fact, I do. I just mean that it will be an awful burden to bear . . . to go on living while my heart lies dying inside me.”
“Then you must quit telling lies to your heart!”
“That is not funny! You know what I meant! I feel as though it is dying inside of me.”
“I do know what you meant; it is you who do not understand me. You must quit telling yourself that your heart is dying. Whether or not you honestly think that it is, you must give it to God. He will heal your heart and make this experience to your growth and profit. He is the Father of your spirit, and He will help you always!”
“What is it with you men? You lose your memory and all of the sudden, you start preaching to everyone and telling the truth all the time! And you are a thief! I think that I might just go back and grab a few of those plants to take with me. It would sure be helpful at times, I can tell you that.”
“Would you like that I should tell you lies, my lady? It is not in me to do so, at any rate. I see no reason to lie, either, as I should definitely like that you be perfectly honest with me; I am in no position to stain our relationship with lies. Do you not think that it is so?”
“It is.” said Joan. “I was merely trying to break the tension a bit.”
“I have caused you tension? I do apologize.” gasped Garrve.
“No. There is no need. I was saying that it seems that everyone that has their memories wiped by the misery’s sorrow has been completely honest with me. I should like you to know that I had not even thought to have implied that it was only a symptom of such a disorder; it could well be that you were a perfectly honest thief before you had such a memorable problem.”
“It could be that he remembers his past and is just trying to get information out of you.” said a voice from the direction of Ryan’s carriage, which Alban had set up away from the supply wagons and other transports.
Joan and Garrve both whipped about to look in the direction of the voice, and then froze with fear! It was more than the chilling shock of having been startled. There was a different feeling in the air about them that, had they even been able to converse about it at length, they would not have been able to explain. They looked at each other as if to glean from the other’s expression any shred of an idea as to what the current situation should hold for them. The sun had just peeked over the large dune to their east and was right in their eyes as they looked on. They were able to see a hand that emerged from within the cabin and was placed on the half open door by the latch area. Then the door was swung open by the same hand. A figure emerged that looked strikingly similar to Alban’s.
Joan’s heart leapt within her, but she was still too shocked to move. As the figure moved closer to them, Joan’s heart could hold back no more. She ran to meet the love of her life! She felt that her legs could not carry her fast enough as she sprinted towards him, tripping twice on her long dress.
“Alban! Alban!” she cried, but he did not answer.
Suddenly, the silhouette began to take shape, and appeared to Joan to be that of a stranger, as this man carried himself a bit differently. She stopped in her tracks and thought of fleeing.
“Lady Joan!” cried Garrve. “Just stay where you are, my lady; I will come to you!”
“You have no need to fear me, dear lady! I mean you no harm.” said the figure with a familiar smile in its voice.
“Alban?” Joan asked in strained tenors near to heartbreak.
The figure stopped where it stood and seemed to be deep in thought. When Garrve reached Joan, the figure reached out his hands to show that it bore no weapons.
“I am unarmed.” he reiterated. “I wish to only help the one . . . I only wish to help you.”
The figure stepped out from in front of the sun. Joan, still expecting that it would be Alban, was bitterly disappointed to see another man there. Well, she thought to herself that it was Alban, and it was not at the same time. She had to be sure. She ran past the man to the carriage and called for Alban. When there was no answer, she climbed in to find him, or at least his body. She emerged at length and slowly walked back to the two men who stood waiting without a word.
“What has happened here? Where is Alban’s body?” Joan asked in solemn, accusatory tones.
“He has gone from this world.” was the man’s reply. “I am sorry. It appears that you felt deeply for him. I know that this cannot be easy for you.”
Something familiar in the mannerisms of the man confused Joan even more.
“Why are you wearing those clothes? What . . . what . . . happened, Alban?”
“My dear Princess Joan, I tell you again that that man has gone from this world! I am most sorry, but that man died in that carriage. As for the clothes, Ryan had them in his carriage.”
“Then how do you know my name?” Joan smiled.
“I overheard you talking with Garrve!” he returned.
“Then how do you know that his name is Garrve?” she asked teasingly.
“Joan, you are a betrothed woman. I am a betrothed man, and my name is not Alban. That man truly died this morning in that carriage; he is no more. I will see that you get home to your people, and I will go to mine as soon as I am able.
“Garrve!” said the man.
Garrve just looked at him as though he were talking about someone else.
“My dear sir, your name is Garrve. We are old friends, though I know that neither do you remember me nor do you recall our great friendship. That cannot be helped for now. I must ask a solemn promise from you!”
“Lead on, good sir!” said Garrve.
“No. That is precisely what I am asking you to do. I am not able to be your king any longer, at least until I finish with a few . . .”
“Wait! You said that you were their king?” Joan asked.
“Yes.” he replied. “King Badgerden’s (the late king of Cavenland) . . . anyway, his life was coming to a close, and as he had no heir . . . that could carry on after him, he had a tournament in which the victor would face him to the death. I rather disliked the idea, but I knew that if I did not enter that the crown could easily be won by lords that had ties with Darvania (like Bracktan), or even some of the barbarian horde that had recently moved into the kingdom. I could not let all that he and my father had fought for simply die with Badgerden, so I won the tournament and gained the right to fight the King. The old man put up a great fight for a while, to tell you the truth, and I did not even have to act (much). After a while, I think that his heart gave out, for he keeled over and died right there; I was King of Cavenland. These men are not the Thieves of the Verdis GranSecas; they are of Cavenland!
“But, as I was saying,” he continued, “I am not able to be your king any longer, at least until I finish with a few . . . tasks that lie ahead of me. The crown that I once wore must be bestowed upon a man of sound mind and excellent character. I find you to be so.”
“No! I should not know where to start!” Garrve protested.
“You will, when your memory returns.” then to Joan, he added, “You must remember all of my instructions, for he will forget them. Tell him that which he has agreed to do and that he agreed to do it, and he will hold himself to its honor.”
Joan nodded tearfully.
“Then you know what to do?”
“Uhhmmm . . .” she began. “No.” came after.
“Well, listen for a while, and it shall all be made clear to you. Or should you like that I write it for you?” he joked.
“No, I will be able to get it all!” Joan blasted back, playfully.
“Please believe me that I should like things to be different! I feel the same dying in my heart, but there are men who are literally being slaughtered in a horrible war caused by your absence — though it was not of your choice! Families are losing their fathers and husbands, young loves losing their men and there are brothers that return no more to their siblings. Such is war.”
“All is fair in love and war!” Joan lied.
“Joan.” the man softly specified. “I know that you do not believe that. My father often said that kings die over and over again for their country. I never understood that until today. We must take the good advice of our amnesic friend and give our hearts to God. I can think of no other way to stop this burning death of my heart.”
“Just let go of your past, and come with me, where we shall live as free as the very air that we breathe!” pleaded Joan.
“Neither, do I live in the past, nor shall I have that you should breathe the breath that is borrowed from the dead and dying. To breathe such air would indeed mean the death of your heart; I’ll have no part in it! You know of the war brewing between our nations. That is nothing compared with that which is forming between each of the believing nations and Darvania!” he answered, as tears the size of junesberries rolled down Joan’s face. “Princess, you will be alright.” he continued. “I have dreamed that dream in which I saw you happily married to your rightful king! I remember feeling great peace even within my heart as I watched you kneel with him at the altar. There is no need to fear.”
“I know. Whenever you speak to me about it, I can feel a deep, solemn . . . peaceful happiness start to swell within my heart. Still . . .”
“That is how God speaks to us, you know. He gives us these feelings in our hearts to know when a thing is just or right or true.”
“There you go again, healing my heart with your kind words!” laughed Joan amid sobs. “If ever you should need anything from me, it shall be done!”
“I know, Princess! You will be a great, benevolent queen!” smiled the man. “Well, I must be gone; I fear that I have overstayed as it is. Anyway, this man is to be told that he is temporarily king over all of the land of Cavenland, should he lose his memory again. It may happen, as you must pass briefly through the field of misery’s sorrow in order to restore their memory. It is my belief that once through the field, that the men should regain their memories, though it could take a second exposure (or, actually, it would be the third) to regain their recollection. I now know that OoftHall merely knocked me unconscious from behind. It was later that I was exposed to the flowers and lost my memory . . . promise me that you will have him take you to your homeland!” he begged.
“Yes. I will. You have my word.”
“A mere yes would have done, as I trust you to be earnest with me; see that you do so with yourself, Princess. I thank you for everything that you have done for me. I should most likely be dead, were it not for you.”
“And I should have been dead inside, were it not for you! I thank you for all that cannot be repaid you. I remain ever in your debt.”
“No, it is I that shall ever be indebted to you!” he said with a look that seemed repentant of his decision to leave. Then he added, “I promise that I shall visit you in your kingdom when I am established where I go.”
With that, he turned and found a horse already saddled and recognized it to be his from before OoftHall’s first treacherous dealing. He approached the horse, and it seemed that he was happy to see the man. The horse was fed some hay and watered from a bucket. Then, the man un-hobbled his steed, put foot to stirrup, and swung up onto the animal’s back. He trotted a couple dozen paces back to Joan and Garrve.
“I just saw Decebal. He seems to have died in the night, from the look of him as I passed him. It may have been a combination of the Goade liquor along with the flowers. I guess that it is the same effect, in any case. I go to Ryan at the slavers’ camp ahead to inform them of his passing. In the event that Ryan should come back, and I think that he might, please do not tease him, my lady. He loves you . . . in his own way.”
“Please! You know what I mean! You must have noticed. Let him down softly, if you are able; such obsession can drive a man mad. Perhaps if you explain to him that you are of royal blood, and of your duty to be homeward bound, he should possibly understand. He still has a role to play in all of this.”
“But, he always went around ordering me to do this and that, he was always getting in my way and acting like it was my fault, and he tried to make me feel like I could never do anything for myself . . .”
“So as to convince you that you needed him?”
“Oh! Wow! How did I not see it?”
“No one is blaming you here, but you cannot lead him on any longer. He must be set free, no matter how it hurt him.”
“Yes, I see that. Do you really think that he will come back for me?”
“Yes. I am going to send him back with the men that be left of the caravan after last night’s storm. I know that he still thinks of me to be somewhat of a recently freed slave, but he seems to see reason, when it is shown him plainly. By the way, he may try to assert himself as the leader of this excursion. You have my permission to give him one of your unequaled tongue lashings — on that matter alone — as I will have explained things in painstaking detail to him!”
Joan laughed a great deal more than needed, possibly to hide her pain.
“Goodbye, Princess. Do take most excellent care of yourself!” the love of her life bid her.
“I will. You do the same.” she replied.
With that, he nodded, turned the horse, and rode away. A beam of sunlight shone off the shield that he had strapped to his back, making Joan to close her eyes and turn her head at its brightness. When she looked back to see him, he had dropped over the horizon of a nearby dune.
Joan’s countenance darkened quite visibly, but she did not care one bit. She had kept up appearances for Alban . . . or whatever his name was. Realizing that she had no idea about what his real name might be made him seem even more gone — if that makes sense. She shuddered quite notably at the thought. All thoughts of covering her pain vanished with . . . what-is-his-name.
“My lady, let us wake everyone up that we may . . . or those able to be awoken, anyway. We must be quit of this infernal desert and get you back home!” Garrve distracted most horribly, because his face showed a deep sympathy for Joan, which only made her miss her love more.
She said a prayer, and asked for protection for Alban and for the party with which she traveled. She asked for water, which sure would help to soothe that knot welling up in the back of her throat. Then, she asked God to help her get rid of those feelings of loss and pain. As she closed her prayer, she felt that nothing had changed.
Suddenly, though, Joan had a feeling wash over her that gave her to know that she would see him again and have more dealings with him, even if it were merely as friends. They would need each other’s friendship if they were to survive the upcoming hostilities.
Be prepared for a life-changing experience, for, you are about to enter into the fireside chat of the old king as he begins the to tell the Legend of the Slave King. The characters of the story come alive, dancing in the flames of the campfire as the old king divulges the secrets of the past. Learn of Alban, a young prince who was sold into slavery. Without so much as memory of who he is (and because of his memory loss) rumors begin to fly in the camp that he may actually be the Slave King of whom it was foretold generations ago. Alban toys with the idea, but only to figure out whom he may trust. Romance with the slaver owner's daughter only complicates things further. Will he be able regain his memory or at least find out who betrayed and sold him? Will he figure out how to escape from the slaver's caravan? Is he actually the Slave King from the legend? He is willing to risk life and limb to find out! Begin your adventure now!