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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Sci-Fi & fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

Guardians of the Sword (Raiders of the Dawn Book 2)

 

GUARDIANS OF THE SWORD

by M. Benjamin Woodall

London’s Emo Kid Publishing

Marietta, GA

© 2017, M. Benjamin Woodall

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews, without the written permission from its publisher or author.

The characters portrayed are fictional. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

CONTENTS

Prelude

Mysteries of Mist

Kingdom of Fools

A Close Call with Death

The Return of the Raiders

Legends

The Wild Hunt

The Scent of Evil

Flight into Darkness

Caught at the Core

Embracing the Hero

Lost in the Plains of Solitude

Arthur’s Keep

The Messenger of Fire

Return to Westmoor

Through the Maze of Courage

Dawn to a New Adventure

Morgana Awaits

Prelude

In the shadows along the cold stone wall, around the corner from the secret chamber, I set the nock of arrow against string with my right hand. Holding the worn grip and yew wood arm of my bow tightly with my left, I listen…

“Charmit!” one of the winged beasts calls.

“Later!” growls the other.

“Charmit, you only captured three?”

“What do you mean—only three?”

“Four were seen entering the cave. One, a Deforian from the Garden Realm.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” the Gargoyle’s voice burns. “Find him!”

I turn and creep almost to the edge of the stone corridor on my left, the blue light of day striking the wall on the right. Krevetat be with me. “I will not again lie to Morgana to save your worthless hide.”

“What did you say, Horgog?! I gave you an order!”

“I located them. I estimated their actions. You did nothing. I should be of higher rank!”

Charmit laughs. “You are the fool!” Stretching, flapping, like the wings of a bat. Rumbling, rustling, thumping against stone—lashing, thumping of meat against meat. One of the Gargoyles grunts fast of breath.

I step around the corner, aiming arrow at Horgog and Charmit, wrestling on the floor before the glistening stone of power on the pedestal. Tom falls back into a shaft of magical light, dropping the Royal Scepter. The Scepter rings out against stone. The light is gone… and so is Tom!

The Gargoyles rise, staring at the crystalline stone as its sparkling surface fades. They and the two other winged beasts before the tall window openings are too stunned to notice me. A breeze blows from the distant mountain peaks outside, up the mountain side and into the chamber. John and the king are backed against the near wall.

“The stone of Rehnoch!” Charmit charges.

John runs to the stone pedestal and swipes up the Royal Scepter. Charmit steps back, drawing his sword. In a courageous yelp, John swings the Scepter against the stone. The crystal surface shatters as if made of sand, bursting in a flash of flame and wind. The Gargoyles stumble. Charmit spreads his wings.

I fire an arrow. It bounces off Charmit’s chest armor. Arrow from quiver, stretch against string, I fire at Horgog, hitting him in the shoulder as he turns. He drops.

The two Gargoyles before the windows draw swords. Arrow to bowstring, thwish. Arrow to bowstring, thwish. Both, I hit in the neck—both fall.

Charmit glares at me, frozen for one second, the beast’s eyes impaling. He runs for a window, leaps, and flies off.

Horgog stands, limps. Arrow to bowstring, thwish. The Gargoyle swings his sword, knocking the arrow. John swipes the Scepter toward his head. Wing spreads into John, knocking him away. Arrow to bowstring. Horgog leaps toward the window over the fallen beasts. Thwish. The arrow clamors off the floor. Horgog escapes out the window, flying off.

The king walks to John’s side as I go to one of the tall openings, watching the Gargoyles soar away into the distance toward the mountain peaks. John steps beside me, and I look up at his wearied countenance. He is scratched and bloodied between his neck and shoulder. The king walks between us. “Why did you destroy the stone?” he asks John. “Now you’re stranded on Angoll.”

“Maybe not,” John answers, still looking off at the distant mountain peaks. The beasts are gone. “Those guys sailed here from Earth. The Raiders of the Dawn. Maybe there’s another way.” He a looks down at the king, faking a smile, and hands His Majesty the Royal Scepter. “Here you go, buddy.”

“Sire,” I inject, “we must start off for the Garden Realm at once, before the Gargoyles return.”

“No way!” John exclaims. “No way I’m going back there.”

“Then you can leave on your own.”

“I’m not leaving John,” the king insists. “He has no place to go.”

“Except finding those other humans,” John says.

“Except that.”

“You must return, Sire,” I plead. “We need you. Angoll needs you.”

“What about that sword?” the king suggests. “The Sword, Kretna, used to defeat Morgana.” He moves to the Rune-like letter etchings on the wall opposite the window openings. John and I follow. The king points to the hieroglyphic picture of a human with sword pointed at a dragon. “Astoria said one of the Raiders was a hero who helped defeat Morgana.” The king points to the Angollian nearby. I approach. “This says a warrior with the Sword of Truth did.”

“That’s right!” John. “We have to find it. The Sword. Does it say where it is?”

The king reads on. I do so also, and as soon as I see mention of the Swamps of Mist, I grievously turn. “It’s at the center of the Swamps of Mist!” he declares in shocking glee.

“No, Sire…” I start.

“Great!” John happily cries. “Where we were going anyway!”

“Sire, after our return, you can send a scout party.”

“Jed, you have no sense of adventure.”

“He’s right,” follows the king. “You don’t. We’re going. And when the king says we’re going, we’re going.”

I sigh.

Mysteries of Mist

At long last we come to the edge of the great swamp, the mountains looming on the horizon behind us. Below our feet grows the greenest grass on Angoll, the warm rays of the bright summer sun shine on us through the blue sky above. But ten feet before us the ground is sodden with water and slime. A threatening cloud looms before us—like a wraith of Valoid, its smoky fingers reaching out from between the branches of seemingly dead trees to drag us away from land of the living.

I shift the weight of the quiver about my tired shoulder. It must be Haughatha, maybe even Ludden’s Day. Ludden’s Day. By the Krevetat, the thought of it makes me smile. “Ludden’s Day,” I say out loud. “How I wish I were back in the Garden Realm. The sounds of the Gwiganet, the smell of fresh toad-berry pie on the flame…” I sigh in pleasantness.

“Do you think it’s really Ludden’s Day already?” the king asks. “We have been away for a long time.”

“Too long.”

“What’s that?” asks John, scratching his beard—a beard which has come into fullness in the last couple weeks. The thought of hair on the face unsettles me. “A holiday?”

“The first day of harvest,” replies the king. He removes his backpack and opens it to pull out a rolled parchment map. “In Delcori it’s not highly regarded, but down in Bardington they have a feast that sometimes lasts for days.” He throws the backpack over his shoulders and opens the map.

“Oh, man, I think I just heard my stomach growl.”

“Our supplies are dangerously low. We need to head south.”

“No,” the king insists, turning up from his map. “We go in.”

“Sire, the Raiders, the humans, were sighted south of the Swamps. It would be wise to seek them out first. We may be able to trade with them, before we look for the Sword.”

“On my map, there is a patch of fertile land maybe half a day’s travel east,” he says, rolling up the map and slipping it into his backpack, “stretching almost to the center of the Swamps of Mist where the Sword is.”

“Sire, your maps have proven to be very unreliable.”

“He’s got a point there, buddy,” comments John.

“Say what you want about my maps,” snaps the king as he turns, “but they got us safely to the Griffin’s. And they’re all we have!”

“They also led us into a bramble of buttersnatches,” I add.

“That was fun,” says John.

“Well, the king says we go in. So, we go!” And without another glance, the king proudly walks forward toward the mists.

“Tell me,” John begins, turning down to me. “In all your stories, has anybody gone in there and come out again?”

“I’ve heard of one, the bravest hero Deforia could find was sent by the king into the mists. And he returned the most cowardly heart in all of Angoll.”

“Oh, man. That sucks.”

I watch ahead as the king steps over an exposed tree root in the muddy rushes and is engulfed in the haze. “What are you waiting for?!” he calls. “Let’s go!”

“They say it’s haunted,” I say.

“Well,” replies John. “I guess it’s now or never.” He hurries ahead. I follow, and soon my feet trudge through the wet muck.

Hours we march, listless and barren of breath as the thick fog feels like water in my lungs. John and I walk nearly abreast, and the king leads from just a couple penses ahead, although even at that distance his form is not clear. My sweat trickles over my skin as a wet coat of arms. No breezes, no movement of air. In fact, no sounds are heard but the splashing of our feet underneath. The heat—is unbearable. Yet the king manages somehow to prance along in his unyielding, gleeful stride.

We climb over a cracked, hollowed-out root of a nearby swamp tree, brushing past its low hanging limbs, onto a bit of drier ground covered by moss. “Sire!” I call out. “Sire!”

“What is it now?” he says as he stops and turns.

We gather together. “Do you even know what direction we’re headed in?”

“East—I think.”

“I think we’re going south,” blurts John, “after going around that lake a mile back.”

“Then why didn’t you say something?” I ask, getting a little frustrated but forcing myself to stay calm.

“I don’t know.”

“Then what do you recommend doing?”

“I think we should try to turn around and find our way out of this accursed Swamp,” I say. “Before it’s too late.”

“I guess Jed’s right,” John adds.

The king sighs, his complexion fading.

We turn. A slimy form rises from the murky water beside us. I swing around to see a large frog-like creature, a wallowbit, splash forward in the mists behind John. I grab my last arrow, ready the bow. The king draws his sword. “Watch out!” he calls.

John jumps back, draws his own sword.

From the creature’s mouth lashes out a long tongue like a vine. Its end grabs the king’s sword from his hand. John’s sword slices it in two. What’s left of it snaps back into the creature’s mouth. It wails.

I fire an arrow, hitting it in the eye. It falls back lifeless into the water. Watching the ripples in the mist, I take a deep breath.

“What was that?” John asks.

“A wallowbit,” I reply. “If they dwell in these swamps in great numbers, we should keep moving. They only attack still prey.”

“How many arrows do you have left?”

“That was the last one.”

John grimaces.

The king steps and lowers to grab his sword from the severed tongue, wiping the slime off its hilt. “Then we head back,” he commands. He marches off. John and I follow.

After hours traveling in roughly the same direction, we set foot on solid ground. The mists have thinned, yet there is nothing to see except for sparse, tree trunks with hanging vines drooping from great branches hidden high above by the vaporous veil. Hardly noticing, we continue at haste until the blurry sunlight fades. We decide to make camp. We can go no farther.

When night comes, a covering of vast darkness blankets us. It’s hard to even see the king and John sitting beside me. John’s wizardly torch isn’t much help, and it cannot pierce the cloud around us. The king takes first watch, shining the torch around to frighten off any wallowbits out there.

The king wakes me, hands me the torch, and I sit with tired eyes, wildly shining the torch from left to right until I know I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I wake John who grudgingly repeats, “I’m up. I’m up.” I pass the torch and fall asleep.

I wake with a start, sitting up in the hazy light of morning. John snores soundly—the torch put out, resting limply in the palm of his hand. The king sleeps close by. I stand to have a peek around the area. Within several penses the mists have pulled back, revealing a moist, sandy ground stretching far off until hidden again by the cloudy curtain. “Sire!” I call.

John wakes first, leaping to his feet in a sudden fright. “Fire? You say fire?!”

“No, no,” I explain as the king stands. “I said Sire.”

“Oh, right.” He bends to grab his torch.

“Did you fall asleep on your watch?”

John slides a notch on the side of the torch back and forth. “Batteries’ dead. Good thing I fell asleep, right?” Confused as I am, I don’t reply. He throws the torch far away into the mists.

“Why did you do that?!”

“Batteries’ dead,” John repeats.

I turn in shock to the king as he yawns. “We’ll have a quick bite to eat, drink what we can, and be off!” he proclaims.

I turn back to John, who bounces up and down with energy. I sigh. “Sometimes I wish I had your spirit,” I admit.

He lowers to pat me on the back. “You’ll get there, buddy.”

“My name’s not buddy.”

“I know, Jed. I’m just messing with you.”

I turn and mumble, “that’s Jehoobud, you dimwit.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” It’s hard to find fault with this Raider when the king seems to find his annoyances amusing.

When I turn back to John, his mouth is full of bread. “I’m done eating,” he says incoherently as crumbs spray from his jaw.

I grab my empty quiver and throw the bow over my shoulder. In the now thin mist I can make out the brighter light coming from the rising sun. I point to it. “East is this way. Lead the way, Sire.”

“By all means,” the king says proudly, walking past with his backpack open, onward toward the sunlight. He pulls out a slice of bread and eats. I follow.

“You’re not having breakfast?” asks John, coming up behind us.

“I’ll eat later,” I answer.

“Suit yourself.”

Now certain of our general direction, we march forward across sturdy terrain until the sun is again clouded by a thicker mist moving over us from the north.

John shouts something about spotting something up ahead. The king and I stop and watch as John runs off into the mists, the soft clump, clump of his steps is heard after his form is gone. The king races after him. Fa-thud. Sploosh. The king too disappears in the fog. Footsteps silence. “Your Majesty!” I yell as I race forward.

“John!” calls the king’s voice, not far away. Soon he comes into view, standing. “I can’t find John anywhere,” he says as I approach. “I think something’s happened to him.”

“Why don’t we split up?” I suggest. “We’ll stay within shouting distance.”

The mists seem to thicken. “Good idea,” the king says.

We wander off in opposite directions into the mists, calling John’s name. No reply. After a few minutes, we re-group, and start off again in other random directions. This time, once the king is out of sight, he shouts, “Jehoobud! Jehoobud!” I hurry to the sound of his voice. Soon I can see him through the haze. “I think I know what happened.”

I reach the king’s side. “What? What happened?”

The king leans back and plants his hand against what is apparently a rough, stone wall. Because of its light-gray color, I didn’t see it at first. Amazed, I approach it, looking up along its surface. It is as high as can be seen, and stretches far into the mists. “Do you think John… ran into it?”

“Maybe,” I say. “Sounds just about right. He ran off, and I didn’t see the wall until you showed it to me.”

“I know! I almost ran into it myself, and I was walking.”

“But, where is he?”

“That, I don’t know. But—I think I know where he was.”

“Where? Where was he?”

The king simply turns and points to the ground. I lower to have a look. I now can see a slight impression, at least two penses from the wall, in the sandy soil. I suppose, as the king suggests, that John’s body could have made it. But, where is he? There are no footprints.

“Where could he have got to?” I said aloud, standing.

“You know,” the king ponders, “I thought about that exact same thing.”

“What did you come up with? Anything?”

“Has he exhibited any strange or peculiar behavior any time lately?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you ever—what I mean is, well, have you ever seen him fly around? Maybe not to great heights but just, maybe, floating around a little?”

“No! of course not! What do you take me for?”

“Hmm…” the king pretends to brood over the prospect. “I take you for, for a—royal guard, vassal…? Cavalier?”

“My title doesn’t matter now! All that matters is finding out what happened to John.” I glance around the area for a sign of anything. “And don’t give me any of that flying nonsense!”

“Well, what’s your explanation? I suppose it’s much better thought out than mine.”

“Of course, it is,” I blurt out before realizing I have none. The king looks at me in his cockiness. What happened? Knock it, think! “Maybe he jumped. He jumped really high, and—landed off in the distance somewhere.” Meeting the king’s puzzled look, I realize I have no idea what I just said.

The king continues to stare for a while more. “I still say he flew!”

Following quite a lot of standing around and arguing unthinkable ideas at each other, we finally agree to find John first and figure out what happened later. The king insists we draw straws, or rather, threads. I choose the longest, so I am to go along the wall to our right and he to our left. After a bit of arguing, the king walks into the mists, insisting that I somehow tricked him.

I take one step but stop in thought. A secret door? I walk back to wall in front of the protrusion, placing my feet where John may have last placed his. I push against the wall with both hands. No avail. Not giving up, I alter my stance and try again. Nothing happens. One last time, stepping back, I push. Alas, it is hopeless.

Just as I back away from the stone, however, I hear a sharp snap somewhere below my right foot. I dare not move. “Sire!” I call. “Sire!” Snap. A dark cavity opens at the base of the wall, and I fall forward. A bit of sand falls with me, the trapdoor closes above me, and I hit the hard floor in complete darkness.

I uneasily stand, in some pain and bruised but not badly hurt. The shadows fade a little and from a hint of light entering from somewhere I can faintly make out four walls surrounding me in a very small space. The air is thick, uncomfortable. Filled with moistness and spongy fumes. I have some trouble breathing. My heart beats swiftly. I start to panic, banging with no effect on the walls, which seem to be wooden.

Oh, my head! Is the room spinning? Am I losing air? The walls seem to close in on me. I feel erratically about, searching for a door.

The trapdoor above opens, something heavy falls upon me in a quick flash of light. I fall to the ground and all is black.

Kingdom of Fools

I wake, sitting up at the shadowy end of a long, dark hallway made of limestone, lit by the flickering flames of torches lining each side. The king, standing nearby, taps my shoulder. “Awake?”

“What happened?” I ask, standing. “And where did you come from?”

“You fell through a trapdoor, and I fell on top of you, and that’s that.”

“The last thing I remember, I was pounding on the walls, trying to escape. How did we escape?”

“Easy. I opened the door.”

“Opened? How could you open a door?”

“That part’s simple. I gave the knob a twist and pushed.”

He stares, looking puzzled at me as I stand to see a small wooden door behind us. “What other way is there?”

“I know how to open a door!”

“Then why didn’t you open it?”

“I didn’t see it.”

“You didn’t see it?”

“No!” I yell back, not realizing my own frustration. “It doesn’t matter. We have to find out where we are.”

“I know where we are.”

“Where?”

“We’re underground in a hallway.”

Of course, we are. We’re underground, like I didn’t already figure that out. I sigh, glancing forward down the hallway which runs twenty penses ahead until it crosses another. “It’s going to be useless to try to climb back out the trapdoor.”

“Then let’s go exploring!”

“Yes, and search for our missing companion. But before you think of it, I suggest not shouting. We don’t know who else might be down here, who else is keeping these torches aflame.”

“Of course,” he says and walks onward. I follow.

We walk down the damp corridor, lined with torches, until it crosses into another running left and right. We turn around the corner, shocked to see three hooded figures, armed with spears, coming toward us. They wear some sort of leather armor, faces hidden by the drooping hooded cloaks colored green, hands covered in orange fur. Without hesitation, I lower my bow and grab for an arrow, forgetting my quiver is empty.

We turn and hurry backward, only to be blocked by three more mysterious opponents. I reach for my sword. The king grabs his hilt. One advances, maybe their leader, his spear tip shoves in the king’s direction. “Drop your weapons,” our hooded host commands. A spear tip pokes my back. I raise my hand.

The king turns to me. I nod. He removes his sword, and I mine, letting them fall. Metal rings out upon stone.

“The bow too,” he orders. Reluctantly, I drop the bow also.

The hooded figures gather around us and prod us back against the wall by their spears. “You are our prisoners!” the leader commands.

“But why?” I ask.

“We can’t have captured them just because they’re here. That would be too easy.”

“This one has an odd look about him,” another hooded guard suggests, pointing to the king. “How about that? We could say we captured him because he’s some ugly, foreign creature.”

“No, no,” their leader says. “That won’t work at all. You can’t go around capturing creatures just because they’re a little out of the ordinary. That would be ridiculous!”

“We could say they’re spies!” poses a third guard. “Yes, that’s it! Spies! We caught them planning the escape of their accomplice.”

The second hooded figure lifts his spear. “And what use would the other prisoner be to them?” he considers. “They risked a lot coming back for him, you know.”

“He’s the only one of them who knows about our defenses. He would have to go back and tell the others before they could attack us, of course.”

“Yes, of course! It all makes sense, now that I think about it. But we captured the other odd-looking creature for asking us all those offensive questions, if you remember.”

“You fools!” their leader growls. “We don’t have any enemies anymore! They’re all dead!”

“No, no, it could still work,” the king interrupts. “Just say that some of them survived. We’ve been waiting in isolation for years, planning an attack against you insolent, foul smelling…”

“Tralks. We are the Tralks. You have to know who we are or it won’t sound right.”

“Anyway, the one we call John is very important to us. He was going to carry back news to our generals of your weaknesses and some of your secrets. He was lost in the swamps and we were sent out to find him. And you stopped us! You’d be a hero!”

“I guess that would work,” the second ponders. “What do you think, Rogtah?”

Rogtah, a third, nods.

“Now who were your worst enemies?” the king asks.

“The Gackgackles have long been our bitter enemies,” Rogtah replies.

“Great! We’ll be Gackgackles.”

“But Gackgackles can’t talk!” the leader insists.

“Perfect,” the king says, turning to me. “Then we won’t say a thing. Will we?”

“We’re not Gackgackles,” I say. “I know it and you know it. I won’t have any part in this conspiracy.”

“Traitor!”

The hooded Tralks, getting comfortable in our bantering, have naively stepped away from us. Their spears are still out, but I keep a careful eye on their every move for a chance to run off.

“Now, we should say they ambushed us, right?” the second Tralk asks the leader. “And since, you know, we’re so skilled fighters, we turned the tide of battle without a scratch!”

“You have to tell them about my expert swing-shift maneuver,” Rogtah adds. “I’ve been working on it for months.”

“Let me see it.”

The five remaining Tralks back away from Rogtah and us into the first connecting corridor. The king and I dunk as we inch away along the wall of the corridor while Rogtah leaps up, spreads arms, swings his spear about himself and ends with a high kick. The king is nearly hit. We inch farther away along the wall.

The Tralk leader plants the end of his spear, raises his head, and nods. “We’ll have to bruise and scratch them up a bit first,” he says.

“That won’t be a problem,” says the second.

Despite the Tralks’ talk of our capture, foolhardy as it is, our mysterious captors seemingly have all but become unaware of our presence. I nudge the king to step back from them down the corridor. They do not turn. “Now’s are chance,” I whisper, and the two of us make our escape.

We run down the torch lit corridor until it comes to another. We turn the corner and soon turn another corner, all the while not looking, assuming we are actually being followed. The passage runs into a damp chamber smelling of mold and fungus—a steady dripping echoes off the slimy floor. Only two torches shine out from the far wall behind a wooden desk, where a cloaked, hooded figure sits, disregarding us entirely. We stop and to stare at our mysterious host.

“May I help you?” the Tralk speaks.

“Yes, you certainly can!” proclaims the king, approaching and pounding his fist onto the desk. “I think both of us are entitled to an exclamation!”

“Of what?”

“Of you getting us trapped down here!”

The shadowed face still can’t be seen underneath the drooping hood as the Tralk turns from the king to me. I stare back a moment, thinking of what to say. “Answer the king!” I order.

“I answer to no Deforian,” the hooded one replies. “And a Deforian—king?” He laughs.

The king groans in anger. “And what about John?”

“John?”

“Yes. Our companion. Tall, like you, I guess. A little clumsy. No snout, hair on top of his head, beard—round ears on the sides…”

“Sounds funny looking.”

“Yeah, yeah.” The king starts to chuckle but straightens up and snarls. “But what about those answers?! We demand answers!”

“Well, what do you want to know?”

“For starters, who are you?”

“I am Galfred, Councilor to His Majesty the King of All Tralks Whose Name Stands for Everything That He Wishes and Whom We Call Master Tralk And Whose Father’s Name Was Kornfoddle the Galant the Preserver of Tralkdom And Conveyer of Fortune to All Those Who Fear Him, the Brave One, Strong Arm and Steady Hand Who Defeated the Raiders in the Battle of the Uplands and Established the Kingdom of Tralkyorth And Whose Proper Name is Gormbut The Third.”

“And where is our companion?” I insert sternly.

“That—I am not permitted to say.”

“And whose orders are those?” asks the king.

“His Majesty the King of All Tralks Whose Name Stands For…”

“That’s enough,” I interrupt. “I get it. We get it. So, when can we see His Majesty? We wish to have a few words with him.”

The hooded figure huffs and crosses his arms. His hands, revealed from the sleeves, are covered in orange fur. He turns away. I turn to the king for direction. The king shrugs his shoulders. “He told me to give you something,” the Tralk says as he turns back.

“What?” comes the king’s curious voice.

“That depends on if you want it or not.”

“Oh yes! We want it! We want it!” the king bursts forth, jumping up and down with desperately unavailing joy.

“Step back.”

The king walks two penses away. “Like this?” he asks.

The Tralk waves ahead. The king acknowledges and takes another step back. I approach his side, and we turn to watch the again silent and unmoving Tralk. Something just occurred to me. It is a trap. I look up as a huge, iron cage falls to the rocky floor around us. I hear laughter and turn around to see the hooded Tralks from before entering and surrounding the metal bars.

“What is the meaning of this?!” I shout.

“Don’t worry,” the Tralk leader speaks, stepping forward. “You won’t be in there for much longer. Just until we have further use for you. Whatever that may be.”

“I demand to see your king!” my liege cries angrily.

“If I was where you two are, I would think again about making demands,” another Tralk suggests. “But for your sake, His Majesty demands to see you.”

“When?” I ask. “When will that be?”

“When he feels like it!” the Tralk leader snaps, accompanied by fits of laughter from the others. The Tralk behind the stands and walks around us to join the others before they all leave the room.

And so, we sit. We sit quietly for what seems like hours on end. Second after second, minute after minute, we do not stir in the least. It would not matter if each second became a day, each hour a year. It would not make any difference whatsoever. We would still be sitting, waiting for just the slightest movement, the softest sound, the…

“I can’t take it anymore!” the king screams. He stands but does nothing.

“You and me both,” I say, “but we have no other choice. We have to take it, Sire, whether we like it or not.”

The king crosses his arms in a humph, frowns, and sits back against the bars. His tail flaps across the metal.

“Don’t make too much of it,” I say. “It isn’t that bad.”

“Tell that to my stomach!”

The insistent growling of my stomach tends to agree with him. We haven’t eaten anything but light rations for days. I stir and rub up against the bars. “You don’t have any food in your backpack?”

“Nope.” He casts his droopy eyes down. I turn, and when I look back, the king’s lightheartedness has returned. “Maybe, if I look very hard, I might just find a few crumbs of something!” He unstraps his backpack, plops it down, and opens it to dig wildly through it.

“I knew you and John shouldn’t have fed those birds a few days ago.” I turn away past the flickering flames in the back of the chamber to the doorway.

“But they were hungry!” he insists.

Ignoring him, I don’t turn. And all is motionless again but for the quivering orange glow on the shadowy stone.

A hooded Tralk slips through the doorway suddenly and stops. The king and I stand. With a clang from above, the cage around us jerks before creaking upward, inch by inch, until it is over our heads. I turn to face the king, and he me.

“You must come with me,” the Tralk balks.

We approach him. As we come to his side, I try to look up under his hood but cannot see the likeness these mysterious creatures. I can feel my aching muscles now relieved for this needed stretch but reluctant to continue to meet our fate. Alas, although the unarmed Tralk turns from us, giving us the opportunity to run, we instead follow as he leads us down the torch lined corridor.

Our Tralk escort continues ahead. Eventually we follow him up a set of cracked stone steps winding around a corner to the right. We come to the end of a wider hall which extends far ahead, passing many archways, some of which reveal shafts of hazy daylight. There are some torches lit along the walls, but not as many as the corridors underground.

At our dawdling pace, I have plenty of time to look upon the segments of limestone making up the walls, interspaced with slabs of wood standing from floor to ceiling. The scent in the air is by far fresher than the stench below. Signs of habitation are everywhere, such as mop buckets with mops, washing bowls with cloth on wooden tables along the wall, and the smells of moldy bread or yesterday’s dregs.

And stepping slowly we continue. Getting a look through an archway on the left as we pass, I catch a glimpse of a courtyard with sandy ground surrounded by a high curtain wall of stone and covered above by the swampy cloud—its misty fingers dripping down along the rock and creeping underneath a large wooden gate at opposite end. At one corner rises a turret, the top hidden.

And we continue onward. We pass two other such courtyards as before on our left and turn down another, more shadowy, hall. Why are we following this—Tralk? If it weren’t for our missing companion, John, I would have jumped onto him and ran with the king for one of those unguarded gates. But for now, we bide our time.

The Tralk stops at a magnificently large and intricately shaved wooden door under a shouldered arch. “You go in here,” he orders and pushes the door inward.

The door opens into a colossal chamber, what is apparently the great hall of this castle, well lit by torchlight. We enter cautiously. In the center before us is a huge, stone fire pit, ashes smoldering still but unlit. Around it throughout the hall are many long wooden tables, seats filled with hooded Tralks before plates of meat and vegetables being served by other hooded figures carrying trays. Past these tables with hidden, shadowy faces watching us, we walk. All along the walls hang long tapestries from high above near the ceiling, in the center of which is a round opening—these colorful draperies each have the picture of a different animal with shield. We approach the far end of the hall where, upon a raised platform, sits a fat, wide-shouldered, hooded Tralk, sitting on a throne at his own table. And standing before the platform is John.

John turns. “John!” shouts my liege as he runs forward. I approach at a steady pace, noticing all the Tralks stand as well as the Tralk king.

“So, they have you too,” John says and turns back to the Tralk king.

“Ooachoo!” the Tralk king bellows, standing and raising his hands, revealing forearms of orange fur. He jerks back his hood, showing his fat, cat-like head covered in orange fur, having enormous pointed ears, which if folded together could cover his face. We hear the wooshing sound of all the hoods of all the Tralks being jerked back—I turn to see all their faces staring at us.

Two uncloaked Tralks, carrying long, shiny trumpets with colorful drapings, approach the Tralk king on either side of the platform. The Tralk king sits. The trumpet players raise their instruments out to the crowd and play an ensemble of loud, bass notes.

They lower the trumpets as a short, chubby Tralk carrying a rolled parchment scroll runs past us and leaps onto the stage, facing the hall. Unrolling the scroll before him, the Tralk clears his throat. “Hear ye, hear ye,” he reads triumphantly. “Thus begins the court of His Majesty the King of All Tralks Whose Name stands for Everything That He Wishes and Whom We Call Master Tralk and Whose Father’s Name Was…”

“Let’s go with the short version for today,” the Tralk king suggests in a shrill voice.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the herald replies. “Da da da—and Whose Name Is Gormbut the Third.”

“Ack! Ack!” Gormbut shouts and waves us closer. “So, our furry friends the Gackgackles have returned!”

John turns down to me and the king with a worriedly confused look. We remain silent, staring back at the Tralk king.

“Won’t talk, eh? Well, maybe you will decide to talk if—”

“We’re not Gackgackles,” I interrupt.

“Who said you’re not?”

“I did.”

“You idiot!” Gormbut snaps. “Gackgackles can’t talk!”

“So,” John says, “we’re talking. Doesn’t that prove anything?”

“It proves you’re fools!”

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s just say we’re Gackgackles. Why are you keeping us here? Is there any reason at all?”

The Tralk king appears worried, rubs his chin, and ponders this very thing. “I never thought of that, I…”

“And while we’re asking, why did you even capture us in the first place?” John adds.

“Well, I…”

“And where’s dinner?” my liege happily asks. “I’m starved!”

The entire hall becomes deathly silent. All Tralks turn to us. Now there rises a commotion, whispering, among the court as all eyes turn to their own king. Gormbut is quiet. The anticipation grows.

Suddenly the Tralk king leaps to his feet and steps around his table. “Let’s eat!” he shouts, raising his arms.

Cheers rise from the court. All the Tralks sit at their tables, some scatter, as the Tralks with trays continue setting out food. All eat and drink heartily. More Tralks carrying more trays of food enter through two archways on either side of the platform. Both John and I glance around at the peculiar excitement, stunned, while my king smiles boldly.

My two companions go to the nearest table. The Tralks standing around it step aside, and a Tralk with tray offers them food. They grab and stuff their mouths with the grub.

I approach, jerk at John’s shirt until he bends down to me, gulping down the last of his glass of ale. “We have to get out of here,” I say softly, looking at the many Tralks eating, unawares. “This looks like the best chance we’ll get.” John nods, swallows.

“Just let me grab some food before we go,” the king insists, taking off and opening his backpack. He throws some loaves of bread into it from the server’s tray, and pushes two plates of food from the table on top of it. Still the Tralks seem unconcerned.

The Tralks have vacated the area around the fire pit, making a clear passage from the platform to the main doors on the far end. John looks out across the hall. “Now!” he exclaims.

John runs toward the fire pit. The king, throwing his backpack over his shoulders, and I race after him. Running past the fire pit, some Tralks point in our direction. “They’re getting away!” one shouts.

“Guards!” shouts Gormbut. “Stop them!”

We quicken our pace. Chairs fall to the floor as the Tralks leap to their feet. They scatter, some lifting spears and grabbing torches from the walls. We reach the door, opening it and racing into the darker corridor.

“This way!” I call as I run in front of John, leading down the around the corner to the left toward the courtyard archways. A great many Tralks, yelling and screaming, follow with torches and spears.

We run through the first archway, moving out into the courtyard outside. The sunlight hazily shining through the swampy cloud above is very dim, and I realize just how long we’ve been captive in this place. We reach the splintered, wooden gate, which seems to be securely shut.

“Get this thing opened, here…” John begins, panickily searching around the edges of the door with his hands.

We turn back to see the torchlight shining off the walls inside the archway, followed by Tralks with spears. John screams, banging on the wood. But it’s hopeless.

A Close Call with Death

The many Tralks with spears and torches slow as they gather into the courtyard behind us, steadily approaching. The king and I back against the gate while John still looks up at it. “Fire, John,” the king proclaims. “Fire!”

“What?!” John turns, breathing heavily.

“I think they’re planning to cook us. We’re going to be barbecued!!”

“Sire?” I insert

“Oh no!” John’s eyes widen as he turns to watch the approaching torch bearers. He steps back and charges at the gate, ramming it hard with his right shoulder. The door rumbles and jerks open. He falls while the misty cloud seeps inward and covers us. I turn to the king, who simply shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

I help John to his feet, and the three of us run out into the swampland. The Tralks scream and run after.

Soon, when we splash into water, our pursuers can no longer be seen. Yet we wade through the low water and mud as quickly as possible. Minutes later we step onto sandy ground. Quickening our pace, we hurry onward, jumping over the roots of two large, dead trees into a clearing.

John stops. He leans up against a tree. The king and I slow and approach. “I think…,” he begins, catching his breath. “I think we lost ‘em.”

I look back into the darkening mists. No signs of danger.

“It’ll be night soon,” the king says. “Maybe we should camp here.”

“We have no weapons, and no torchlight,” I indicate. “But it’s just as well. We’re not going to make it much farther tonight.” We remove our supplies and sit. “Let’s just hope there are no wallowbits about.”

The Krevetat were with us during the night. We were spared any problems. The mists have thinned by morning, allowing gleams of sunlight to reach us. In this renewed, hopeful beginning, we eat a swift breakfast of bread and drink the last drops of water from our skins. I lower to pray to Orgala for safe journey. The king joins me. And soon even John, who knows not our ways, shares a thanks to Orgala, following with “amen,” whatever that means. We are thirsty still, but nonetheless start off again on our now desperate quest into the unknown.

Mud splashes into the air as we come to an abrupt halt. Staring at the sodden soil I can see my feet clearly. No mist. Fresh air fills my lungs. I look up. Clear, blue skies above. “Where are we?” I ask.

The bright sun shines down on our tired bodies from its eastwardly station ahead. No more wet, lifeless ground. As far as I can see there is only rolling hills of green grass with an oak tree here and there.

“We made it,” John says. “We made it out!” He sighs in relief. “Let’s not go back in.”

“We’re not out.”

“What? We left all the smelly muck and grime back that way.” He turns around to the wall of mist hovering over the wetlands just three penses behind us.

I notice the king beside me, having removed his backpack, pulling out a map. “Look at the sun, ahead of us.”

“Oh, right. Right. I thought the Swamps were bigger than that.”

“We’re not through the Swamps,” says the king. “We’ve found the unmapped, fertile lands within.”

“What do you mean, unmapped?” asks John, pointing to the map as the king lowers it. “It’s on your map, isn’t it?”

“Where it is, is on the map, stretching to the center of the Swamps—”

“That’s where we want to go, right?”

“Right. If we want to find that famous Sword, the Sword of Truth.”

“Another ill-founded quest,” I add.

“That’s probably Excalibur,” comments John.

“Excalibur?” the king ponders.

“Yeah. I saw a movie about it once. It’s an old story on Earth they made into a movie, about King Arthur and a wizard Merlin, who had this magic sword called Excalibur, to fight Morgana and these bad guys. Tom also told me there’s some old poems that say he sailed west from England with a bunch of guys to make a raid on the Otherworld. And he fought giants.”

“Hmm. The Raiders of the Dawn…”

“The Raiders, yeah. Those guys.”

“If we really are searching for this Sword,” I start, “what does your map tell us about these hidden lands?”

“Nothing,” the king replies. He points to the blank area within the Swamps on the parchment. “It’s blank, with a note that says, fertile lands. My father must have known about it, but never been here.”

“Then let’s go exploring, guys!” proclaims John. “You can fill in the blank.”

“You’re right! I can finish the map!”

John happily starts eastward, the king follows, and I come after them with a sigh. Exploring these unknown lands, without any weapons, is a bad idea. But I believe in the king. No. I believe in the prophecy, in the return of a united Angoll. I will follow the king, even if doubt his leadership.

We press onward at a steady pace eastwardly, over many hills, well into the afternoon before stopping again for a light lunch. We continue. While walking over some of the hilltops, we can still see the misty edges of the swamps far behind us and to the north, but soon the northern edge can no longer be seen. An hour after our meal we come to a wide, rocky creek flowing northeastward, surrounded by trees. Relieved, we stop for a drink of its clear water and fill our skins.

The king and I sit together on the edge of a large, flat rock, one of many moss-covered stones, overshadowing the edge of the fast-moving water. He takes off his backpack and we let down our supplies. My empty quiver I hold in hand as I lie my tired back against the stone, curling my tail in delight as the warm sun covers me. John steps out from rock to rock across part of the creek, stopping and swaying back and forth on a wobbling stone. The rippling sounds of what is here a fast-moving stream overcome me.

“You guys think we should follow the creek from now on?” John asks.

“That would be wise,” I say.

“As long as it doesn’t turn too far north or south,” the king adds.

“We got our water,” John starts, “and fish!”

“Fish?”

“Little tiny ones.”

I sit up to see John staring down into a deep pool under a short wall of water. “Catch one,” I suggest.

“I will,” he says, crouching down and reaching a hand beneath the water’s surface. Watching, he waits. He jerks his arm down in a splash and pulls it out, looking dumfounded.

I laugh. The king rises. “Let me try that,” he says and steps across the stones to John as John rises, gesturing to the water. The king crouches, waits, and reaches forward, losing his balance and slipping off the rock into the water. He sits up.

“You missed.”

I turn and lay back down. “You two are incorrigible,” I say. I stare up at the blue sky past a thick, over-hanging branch, until a swash of cool water is splashed over me. Wiping it from my eyes, I hold steady. I will not be drawn into these childlike games. After all, it does feel pleasant under the sun’s bright rays.

“Jed!” John calls.

“What is it now?” I push myself up and turn across the creek to John. Both he and the king stare ahead in shock. John points off the bank nearby me. I sit up and turn around to see a large ever-bear crouching at the water’s edge only ten penses away. It turns its beaked, feathery face toward us, raising its ears. I jerk up, halting my breath.

“Don’t… move.”

“Maybe it’s just getting a drink,” the king suggests.

The ever-bear stands up on its hind legs, revealing its immense size, three penses taller than John. It roars. “Run!” yells John. Splash. Splash.

I jump up onto the stone, turn. John and the king race through the water onto the other bank. I leap out onto another rock, nearly losing my balance. The ever-bear jumps into the creek, back on all four legs, after us.

“Get in the tree!” yells John, as he lifts the king to the nearest branch of an elm tree. “They can’t climb!”

I splash into the water near the bank, but the ever-bear reaches me, trapping me with his forearms to either side as I turn up. I fall into the rocky water. Its beak thrusts down. I turn. It misses and strikes the creek bed. “Jed!” John screams.

The ever-bear rolls me with its heavy claw, my snout digging into the creek. John has leaped onto the beast’s back, his right arm around its neck. It stands on its hind legs and backs. I scurry along my side toward the bank.

The ever-bear roars as John hangs from its neck. I sit up. The king lunges a snapped tree branch into the beast’s leg. It limps, swinging around and throwing John away off its back. John splashes into the creek, leg against stone.

I panickily look about, grab a large, pointed rock, and hurl it at the beast’s beak as it opens above me. The beak chips, blood drips.

The ever-bear roars and crawls backward along the bank past John. Blood runs off its hind leg and drips from its cracked beak. John pushes himself up as he watches the beast pass. The monster keeps its eyes on us, backing onto dry ground. I stand. The king goes to John. The ever-bear turns and disappears into the trees.

“You’re hurt,” the king says.

John struggles to stand, limping on his wounded leg. “Just bruised,” he says.

“These ever-bears,” I start, “they like the woods. We need to keep away from the trees from now on, along the hills. We may not be so lucky next time. I don’t think it was hungry.”

“Good idea,”

So much for our long-awaited repose. Soon the three of us step back across the creek, grab our supplies, step northward out of the trees, and follow the creek downstream along the hillsides. Continuing throughout the afternoon, we find that the grassy, rounded terrain on either side of the creek does not change—perhaps a few more elm trees here as opposed to an oak there. In many places, the creek flows out in the open between hills. Delightful senses of life, from playful squirrels to an occasional birdsong melody, fill the agreeable weather like a hand fits snuggly into a glove, and I almost forget about our recent encounter with the ever-bear but for John’s limping on his hurt leg. Alas, the day all too soon ends, and we sleep unfettered in the open air upon a grassy slope.

We wake the next morning and continue journeying downstream until midday. Even from the highest hilltop we are no longer able to make out the swampy cloud that marks the borders of this land, so we decide to stray farther northward away from the creek to see if we can keep it in sight. After several long hours of walking with no glimpse of it, we head back eastward. We travel slowly because of John’s injury, but steadily along. The day stretches ceaselessly into the afternoon—the sun seemingly stationary above us. Still and all, the day comes to a close. Just as the fiery breath of Kretava scorches the western sky behind us, we make it to the peak of the largest hill in the area.

The king and John sit to rest underneath the only tree, a young oak. My legs ache, my arms heavy, though still my eyes are wide awake. I wander away from my companions, starting down the eastern slope, surveying the land before us. The shadows of the endless hilly landscape stretch outward before me as the light fades. A soft breeze hits me. I take a deep breath of the crisp, open air.

In this peaceful serenity, something catches my eye—somewhere leagues away, something seemed to move between the hills. Or did it? I stare intently for a minute more, but I see nothing. The king steps up beside me, studies me, before following my glance outward to the coming of night’s curtain.

“You see something?” he asks.

“I don’t know, Sire,” I answer. “Maybe nothing.”

“Your eyes are tired,” he says as he places a hand on my shoulder. “Come. Get some sleep.”

He walks back to the tree, but I remain. At the very hint of sleep, my eyes suddenly feel heavy, but even though, I feel something is out of the ordinary. I’m going to keep awake, keep watch somehow.

Perhaps an hour has past, and I’ve managed to stave off sleep. The night’s sky is filled with stars. I haven’t moved an inch. Suddenly an unexpected breeze of cool air rushes up the hillside. I turn with it as it quickly blows past me and rustles the oak tree leaves above my slumbering companions.

It is gone. Quiet returns, and I turn back to my watch.

My eyes grow evermore heavy. I rub them to make one more glance about the area. Now, almost as the herald of doom, the breezes blow, more strongly than before. This time I know I can hear something above the rustling of leaves. Very softly but unmistakable—a humming.

I turn around and have a look across the lonely hill top, my heart thumping. Everything is as it should be. The familiar oak tree at the very center of the hill with my companions sleeping soundly underneath it. Yes, all is peaceful, yet something impels me to be at my ready.

As I nervously pace about, examining the area, something passes overhead. Another rush of wind follows, this one strong enough to wake the king and John. “What was that?” starts John, rising.

“They’re back!” I say. “Morgana’s beasts! One of their transports just flew overhead.”

John hurriedly shakes the king and helps him up. “Get up! Get up!”

“What’s going on?!” the king shouts. “How dare you wake me from my slumber!”

“Morgana!”

The king immediately swings his backpack over his shoulders and runs with John from the tree. I race to the other side of the hill, looking down the western slope to see one of Morgana’s flying ships of metal resting not far off the hillside. Its door, one part raised up and the other down to the ground as steps, has opened. Several of those tall snake-men that we encountered on our march into the mountains file out, all wearing dark armor and wielding swords.

“Run!” I yell and turn, not looking back. John and the king dart at full speed toward the eastern slope—I, close behind. John with his long legs speeds out in front. “Get the king!” I shout, out of breath. “Get the king!”

John stops until the king reaches him. He picks up the king and pulls him over his shoulder as I reach them. John, the king hanging on his back, runs again down the slope. I turn back as I quicken my legs as much as possible to see the enemy advancing over the hill just behind us.

Reaching level ground, John and the king are far ahead of me. I run for as long as I can, but my legs tire and my muscles stiffen. I fall. “Jed!” John calls out, slowing.

“No!” I yell. “Get him to safety!”

John turns. Morgana’s minions are nearly on top of me, when—they stop? There is a trampling of hooves, fast approaching. Neighing and grunting of many horses.

I roll onto my side, feeling faint. A flash of steel above me. Horses about. Upon one I see a tall Raider like John, wearing shiny, plated metal armor—he leaps to the ground off his steed before the evil ones. I can’t see well, but I hear metal clashing with metal. Clang. Swish. Clang. Flashes of light, perhaps torches. Screams, hollers, calls of victory rise.

But alas, I fall into a dark sleep.

The Return of the Raiders

Clankety-clank. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Thubalup. The not so distant sound of horses and wagons shrouds me. My head resting on a thick, firm pillow, I turn onto my right side under the warm coverings and squint open my eyes. A shaft of warm sunlight glides over me across the cool bed chamber made of stone segments. I open my eyes wider as the sounds of activity outside grow, over John’s sleeping form beside me, and I follow the rays of light over the enormous bed of silky sheets, turning to my left where lies the king to the one door. I fancy falling back into sleep in this cloud of comfort, but something’s not right. We shouldn’t be here.

I sit up. The large bed chamber of clean, gray stone is lit through the window by the low light of morning. On the wall off the foot of the bed are two red drapes, hanging from ceiling to floor—the one on the right with the emblem of shield, crossed into two diagonal, checkered squares and two plain yellow ones, and the drape on the left with a shield containing the silhouette of a buck’s head. Two large, cushiony red armchairs sit before the window, upon one rests my quiver and draping over it my red-hooded cape. Otherwise the room is empty.

The door opens. A tall, broad-shouldered, muscular man with rough, golden hair upon his head enters. He wears a tunic colored a deep green with loose, white sleeves underneath.

The king sits up, rolls away the sheets, and sweeps off the bed, stepping toward the Raider. “If you think you’re going to keep us prisoner,” the king scolds, “you’re in for a surprise.”

The noble Raider looks across at me. “What is he brabbling on about?”

“Sire,” I insist, “these Raiders are our friends.”

John wakes and sits up. “A human!”

“Sire?” questions the golden-haired man.

“And what have you done with my backpack?!” the king flares.

“Thy supplies are safe, Deforian.”

“Deforian? No. You will address me properly. I am the king of Deforia!”

“Thou art but a cockalorum. Of thy claims, we shall see, but here we have a queen.”

“Where is here?” asks John.

“Why, Westmoor Castle, in the lands of the Kretan Rahnat.”

“Kretan…?”

“Angollian,” I explain, “for Guardians of the Sword.”

“The Sword of Truth? You know where it is?”

Our noble host smiles. “There are many questions that need an answer. I am Sir Robin, at your service.”

“Humph,” starts the king. “We shall see.”

“Now, thou king of fadoodle and thy two companions shall come with me.”

“I presume fadoodle is an honorable term to describe a noble lord such as myself.”

“Where are we going?” asks John.

“I am to bring you before the queen. She requests your presence.”

“Then what are we waiting for?!” exclaims the king. He marches toward the door and turns. “Servants?”

“Watch it, Kalla,” John says as he climbs out of bed. Sir Robin smiles and walks out the door. The king and John follow. I run to the chair to grab my cape, throwing it over me, and my quiver upon my shoulder, before hurrying after them.

Sir Robin leads us through a long hallway and down a spiral staircase at least two floors to another hallway, this one well-lit by three large archways along the left opening out into an expansive courtyard which runs alongside. Both the yard and hallway are fraught with activity. Raiders, like John and Sir Robin, are everywhere—noble lords in fancy garb, noble ladies in dress, plate-armored knights, and scantily dressed castle servants. In the courtyard horses snort and whinny while plated knights dismount, their squires holding the reins and running to collect their swords and lances. One knight with wide brow and long brown hair with beard approaches from ahead up the hallway—I turn with him as he passes to get a good look at his polished steel breastplate where is the emblem of a red dragon with wings out and front claw extended.

Arf, arf. Arf, arf, arf. The barking of dogs accompanies a sharp stench like wet horse hair and stagnant mud as we pass the last archway at the back corner of the courtyard. Outside, six husky dogs yap at us as they climb the splintered wooden boards of a muddy pen with their front paws. “Down! Down!” cries a stout, filthy looking man swinging a large stick.

The hallway opens into a crossing one. Sir Robin leads left along the back of the courtyard for maybe two dozen penses and then right into a large stone archway leading a great hall. The enormous chamber is hundreds of penses across. Intricately carved stone archways cross many stories up above us. A hole dead center reveals blue skies, and below it in the middle of the great hall is an ash-filled fire pit. Several long wooden tables are spread across the chamber around it, surrounded with a great many castle servants carrying plates, bowls, table settings in a hustle to prepare for what appears to be an upcoming meal. Long tapestries hang from high in the air along the right and left, in front of a few thin windows, revealing heraldic shields and symbols of animals like bear and peasant and buck, colored brilliant red, cool blue, deep purple, and bright green. We cross the hall, led by Sir Robin between the tables past the fire pit, getting a few quick, curious looks from the male and female humans, but little in the way of staring, throughout their busy work as we make our way toward the back of the hall toward another archway.

Through the second archway we enter another only slightly smaller hall with ceiling not as high, not as fraught with activity, where the sounds of the nearby bustle are quieted. The floor is now smooth marble, and in the back of the hall is a dais upon which stands a stone throne with red cushions where sits the young queen of the Kretan Rahnat. Her brow lowered below her golden crown, wrapped in the small, white blossoms of meadowsweet, beneath her long, ever-flowing blonde hair with red hues, braided in part, cascading over her delicate shoulders and breasts, over her long, silky dress colored a deep, rich blue.

The young queen turns up to look at us—her fair skin shows not a wrinkle or barely a blemish. Her eyes a twinkling, fiery hazel, knowingly warm yet penetratingly cold, gaze upon us in a stern countenance. Etiquette is her name, protocol her form. “Thou art a Raider from the Land of the Dawn?” she asks.

John steps forward, staring at her as if in a trance. “I am, Your Majesty,” he falters. “I’m from Earth.”

“Then thou knowst of Angland?”

“England. Yes.”

The queen smiles. “I am the queen of the Kretan Rahnat. But thou, honorable sir, mayest call me Dayona.”

“Dayona…,” John mumbles as if in a daze. “Dayona.” He smiles at her. “My name’s John.”

“That is a good name. A strong name.”

John continues to stare. “John!” the king snaps at him.

She raises her right hand with drooping sleeves, revealing the king’s Royal Scepter. “How hast thou come in possession of this, Deforian?”

“That’s mine!” the king fronts, starting forward but stopped by Sir Robin’s strong hand.

“Who art thou?”

“He is the Heir of Deforia,” I say.

The queen sits up, stunned. “Thou?”

“I am Kalla Desdain, son of Pedwen Desdain,” the king indicates, “from the Lake Lands.”

“Then welcome, good lord. My father, King Gwain, was a friend of your father’s.”

The king bows. “Your Majesty.”

Dayona stands. “Do not think I shall bow before thee, Deforian. Not yet. The Deforian Empire does not exist. But my father believed in the prophecy telling of its return to Angoll, in the Keepers, and the day we shall finally be freed from our Gargoyle threat—and now the Ranktechens’—so I shall honor thee.” She holds out the Scepter. The king approaches to take it.

“Where is my backpack?”

“Guard!” Through a doorway in the back comes a man in chainmail with a leather surcoat having the emblem of the red dragon and dropping to a split kilt, metal helmet, and red cape—carrying the king’s backpack, he approaches, his boots clacking upon the marble floor. Soon he nears, and the king sweeps up to him to snatch his backpack. He looks through it, puts the Royal Scepter within, and throws it over his shoulders.

“Who are the Ranktechens you mentioned?” asks John.

“Those foul creatures who pursued thee last night.”

“Do you know where the Sword of Truth is?”

“We are the Kretan Rahnat. We are its Guardians.” She pauses to study John’s almost blank expression. She approaches him, and he stiffens, staring into her eyes. She stops two penses away, looking up at him since she is half a pense shorter, and she smiles. John gulps. Dayona turns and steps aside. “Wherefore dost thou want to know?”

“We are on a quest,” John answers. “To find it.”

She stops but does not turn. “No one has sought it for ages. No one has seen it but in long forgotten tales.” She turns, showing again a stern look. “Some of us doubt it even exists. But I believe.”

“We believe too.”

“So,” the king imparts, “can you help us?”

The queen glances down to the king, to John, and now turns to walk between us toward the chamber entrance. “Come,” she says. “Let me tell thee a tale.” John, the king, and I follow her. Sir Robin walks behind as we soon leave the chamber.

The queen leads us through the great chamber, back past the many tables where the bustling castle servants prepare for their feast, toward the center fire pit. “Far to the east across the Sea of Power lies the Lands of Knowledge, and there, many hundreds of years ago, there was a magical pool, called the Pool of Wisdom. The peculiarity of this pool is that if one would lower into its waters, one would rise again into one of many other realms, and through the pool over many ages all the races of Angoll but for the Deforians came. The High Council of Keepers united all of them under the Truce of Union, and Angoll was at peace. Until the giants came.”

The queen leads up past the fire pit toward the chamber’s entrance as she continues, “The race of giants invaded the Lands of Knowledge, and their leader, Hardig, claimed the Pool of Wisdom as his own. The High Council led a force against Hardig’s reign, and in the scuffle the base of the pool was shattered. Its fragments disappeared through a portal and only three were left—the largest, the Stone of Rehnoch, and three shards. One of these shards was formed within your Royal Scepter at the time Galvine the Griffin founded the Deforian Empire under what was left of the Truce of Union.”

“That’s that stone!” John comments with a sudden insight when we come to the archway entrance. “That’s that stone at the Griffin’s!”

“Yes,” I comment. “The one you shattered into a million pieces.”

Dayona stops, looking stunned as she turns. “Thou… destroyed the Stone of Rehnoch?”

“He ran the gauntlet, he did,” adds Sir Robin.

“Yep,” replies John.

“Wherefore would thou do this?”

“I did it when we were at the Griffin’s, when those Gargoyles found us. I don’t know. Something told me I should try to break it, because they wanted to get to Earth, to take over Earth, you know? And I guess I just… didn’t want to make it easy for them. You know?”

“Morgana seeks to conquer the Land of the Dawn?”

“Yeah,” says John. “Yeah. She does. That’s kind of how me and Tom got here to Angoll. One of those Ranktechen guys you talked about told us about her plans, so that’s why they took Doctor Lawrence, to help them out. Or something like that.”

“Who’s Tom?”

“He’s my friend, from Earth. He went through a portal at the Griffin’s when those Gargoyles came. I guess he went back to Earth. Lucky bastard.”

“We thought the Stone of Rehnoch was destroyed in the Lost War.”

“And now it really is.”

“There is another way thou mayest return to the Land of the Dawn.”

“How?”

“’Tis said that if the three remaining shards are brought together, a portal to your world will open.”

“We have one right here,” the king declares, raising the Royal Scepter.

“Yea, and the Sword of Truth is another. It was forged from one of the shards and given to Arthur, to vanquish the menace of giants from Angoll. And it was used to end the Lost War against Morgana.”

“King Arthur!”

“Yea.”

“So, I guess this Griffin guy was, like, Merlin?”

“Thy words are acclumsid, good John.”

“So where is the last one? The other shard.”

“’Tis said to have been formed into the Shield of the Sun. But no one knows of its whereabouts. It may be hidden in the Tower of Darteh, the ancient keep of the High Council.”

“Then we need to go there. After we get the Sword, of course.”

“Of course!” declares the king.

“Yet another quest, Sire?” I inquire. “We need to return to the Lake Lands. We need to unite the princes. Morgana is rising.”

“No. You need to wait. We’ll do all that, after we find the Shield of the Sun.”

“That’s right,” says John.

“Thou mentioned the Griffin, just before,” Dayona ponders.

“Oh, yeah. We found his hideout. He wasn’t there.”

“After Galvine the Griffin, the last of the High Council, hid the Sword Kretna at the center of the Swamps of Mist, he returned to the Lands of Knowledge.”

“How long ago?” asks the king.

“Hundreds of years ago. He has not appeared on our shores since. I doubt he lives.”

“Then who is Angoll’s Keeper now?”

“I fear, no one.” She delves a caring look into the king’s now troubled eyes. “Come.”

We follow the queen and Sir Robin through the archway, across the hall, and outside into the courtyard. Other than the barking of dogs, there is less commotion than before. The large wooden gate at the front of the yard is open. Much commotion is heard through it. Shing, slash, kling—yelping and hoorahs. The few castle guards and servants here back away from us and bow. The fair queen proceeds with head held high, not acknowledging them with so much as a glance, while the five of us pass underneath the gateway.

“This is where I take my leave of you, Your Majesty,” Sir Robin nods.

“Very well, then,” she answers. “Good day, Sir Robin.”

Sir Robin moves back into the inner courtyard as the queen leads us out into a much larger yard of well-trodden grass and dry soil, still many penses from the open drawbridge of the castle along the high castle wall. A steady wind blows inward, providing some comfort from the bright sun above, shining down from the clear, blue sky. This great yard seems to surround the keep from which we left, with its own walls and towers. Following the queen, we turn along it toward a crowd of fighters, knights, and noblefolk. Red, purple, green, and blue flags are posted about on high poles. There is a tent set up, underneath which are weapons, and young squire boys run to and fro, carrying them and supplies to their knights, some of which clash sword and shield between the flags as noblefolk nearby look onward. Opposite the activity is a larger crowd of commoners, wearing plain clothes. Some children sit on the shoulders of their fathers to watch the games. One of the knights downs his opponent with sword, and they cheer.

“We are now holding the Games of Summer,” speaks Dayona, “as we do every August. The victors will meet again in October, and again for the annual Gauntlet in December for Alban Arthan and our Yuletide feast.” We stop not far from the tent. John turns to watch the knights clashing swords with great interest. “This tournament is more important to us now in these dark days, when Gargoyles and fell creatures of old are encroaching on the borders of our lands, where an unholy foot has not set ground since tales of old.”

A noble gentleman with purple girdle fastened together in the front with a silver buckle, having beige-colored stockings underneath baggy short-pants, approaches. With him is a lady in dress, having a light veil and gloves. “What is this talk of unholy feet?”

Dayona turns to him, smiling. “How now, good Philip.”

“Your Majesty.”

“I do believe they were speaking of Gargoyles, dear,” the veiled lady explains.

“Gargoyles have some ugly feet,” says John.

“That they do!” agrees Philip. “So, you must be the Earth man.”

“That’s right. Nice to meet you, Philip,” John says, and he shakes hands with the noble.

“I’m going to have a closer look at the competition,” the king declares before wandering off toward the crowds. I swiftly turn, seeing that Philip, and the lady addressed as Viola, are engaged in conversation with John and the queen. I turn back to run after the king.

The king hurries around the flagged area, past the tent, to not far from the crowd of commoners. He stops to watch two fighters knocking long wooden staves together—one spins around, lowers below the other’s swing, and swipes against his opponent’s legs, downing the second. “Aye, up, father!” we hear a boy’s voice. “Deforians!”

We turn around to see a tall peasant man in a loose woolen shirt, no sleeves, and a young boy no more than seven upon his shoulders, pointing down at us. “Aye, son,” the man says in a smile, looking at us in delight. “What’re ye two blokes doin ‘ere? Long way from ‘ome, aren’t ye?”

“We’re adventurers from the Lake Lands, from over the mountains,” replies the king.

“Northlake? Delcorites, are ye?”

“That’s right. You ever been out that way…? No, I guess not.”

“Ney, never been much farther than our ‘ome in East Point. ‘Tis a right good trek though Core Wood these days with them ever-bears about. Come ‘ere to Westmoor Castle every year with the youngins to watch the games, tho.”

“Well, I’m Kalla Desdain. And this here is Jed.”

“Yer a right good lord, sir. My name’s Alistair.”

“Glad to meet you.”

“From the looks of ye, I thought ye were ‘ere for the archery contest.”

“Archery?” I ask, suddenly interested. “Where?”

The man points back along the castle wall where many penses away there are five hay-filled targets of white cloth with four concentric red circles painted on their faces, each standing upon three wooden legs. Some nobles are gathered before them while six bowmen with longbows wait. “Let’s go!” the king declares and begins in that direction.

“It were an honor to meet ye.”

“Same to you,” the king waves back. I hurry after him. We pick up our pace, and before long we approach the bowmen.

“What’s this?” cries a bowman wearing a green-hooded cloak, tied with a silver broach and having elbow length gloves. Carrying a longbow over shoulder, he approaches in a wry smile. “We can’t have children runnin’ about here!”

“Maybe we should send them home to their mother,” says another bowman nearby in a chuckle.

“And give them a good scolding.”

“Children?!” the king retorts. “How dare you!”

“How dare you speak to me in that manner!” the green cloaked bowman steps up to the king’s side, staring down at him in contempt.

“Back off,” I say, nervous as some of the others approach.

“No.”

“You better watch it,” says the king. “My companion is the best at the bow in all of Angoll!”

The green cloaked bowman laughs heartily. “Did you hear that, fellows? This little green lizard here thinks he can beat the best of us!”

“I know I can,” I reply.

The bowman lowers, looking up my snout into my eyes. “Okay, then. I accept your challenge.”

“Give me one of your short bows, and an arrow,” I say.

He rises. Much commotion ensues as the other bowman and noblefolk gather around us. The green cloaked bowman signals to one of the squire boys, who promptly runs off. The knights competing with the sword end their contests. The crowd of commoners and other nobles from away across the yard approach, along with the queen and John. The squire boy returns with a short-bow (short for a Raider), and I approach to take it, taking a moment to feel across the smooth oak wood, grasping the grip with my left hand, pulling and releasing the bowstring with my right.

One nobleman approaches. “Sir Mortimer,” he speaks to the green cloaked bowman, “’tis your mark.” The green cloaked bowman raises the side of his wretched mouth in a sly grin, looking across at me as if I am but a joke to him, and steps before one of the targets. He removes his longbow from his arm, an arrow from quiver, and readies it against bowstring. He confidently raises the bow before him, aims, and shoots. Thwish. The arrow hits dead center of the target.

Not looking up, I step before Sir Mortimer with arrow ready against string. I take a moment to aim, lining my arrow with his, pull back and release. Thwish. My arrow splits his down the middle. I turn and bow before my opponent.

“Ha ha!” shouts John. “In your face cow derriere!”

Sir Mortimer spins in anger to face John across the crowd. He turns to the queen, who smiles awkwardly, and clinches his left fist. He throws his longbow over shoulder, turns, and storms away from the castle wall.

I turn to watch him off. Another bowman pats me on the back, congratulating me.

Legends

Come sunset, we join the noblefolk of the Kretan Rahnat in the great hall of Westmoor Castle for merriment and feasting. Many of the tables are filled, and servants hurry between them carrying plates of rich foods—roasted boar and pheasant, garnished with greens and fruit, baskets of bread, and pitchers of ale. Mints and flower pedals have been sprinkled everywhere upon the stone floors, providing a very pleasant aroma, masking the otherwise dank and musty odors. Other nobles sit along with Dayona, John, the king, and I at a long wooden table not far from the center pit, where a small fire burns, the heat from which scorches the already warm summer air. Yet the nobles wear their ornate garments and head coverings. The far stone edges of the chamber are yet not so warm—while I sit facing the fire’s breath, my back still feels the cool stone presence. The sunlight dims from the opening high above. The dancing, orange glow from the pit and torches near the two entranceways provide the principle, shadowy light.

Dayona sits in a tall wooden chair at the head of the table, carved with intricate spiral designs. I sit beside her, and across from me sits the Constable of the castle, Lord Irwen, and his wife—beside them are Sir Robin and three other knights, and next to me opposite them sit the king and John. Once a servant has cut slices of the large, well-cooked boar upon our table, John does not hesitate to reach out and grab a large piece with his hand and shove it into his mouth. “Oh, man,” he says, chewing. “I haven’t eaten like this in weeks!”

The queen gives no reaction, delicately biting into her bread as meat is placed before her. The king and I likewise are subtler, though we waste no time to eat this tasty treat, filling our hungry stomachs like never before on our journey. “Your Majesty,” I start, “tell us again of the Sword of Truth.”

“Nearly a week’s journey from here downstream past the Plains of Solitude lies Abbey Lake, in the middle of Abbey Wood, and on its far shore is what legend calls the Messenger of Fire. ‘Tis an ancient keep, not seen but for the best of my woodsmen, and within it lies Kretna, the Sword of Truth.”

“Or so tales say,” adds Lord Irwen.

“Doesn’t sound too difficult,” says John, just before guzzling down a slurp of ale. “Easy-peasy.”

“Not so, good John,” the queen replies. “Abbey Wood is teeming with ever-bears. I would not have thou journey there without the aid of my best woodsmen.”

“I hate those things.”

“But why hasn’t anyone entered the keep?” asks the king. “Why haven’t these woodsmen of yours gone inside to see the Sword, to know if it’s really there or not?”

“The keep is sacred to us. It has been forbidden for us to enter. ‘Tis said only a Raider from the Land of the Dawn may do so.” She stares firmly across to John until he looks up.

“What?” asks John. “Like me?”

“Yea, thou. Thou mayest find the Sword, and thou mayest wield it.”

“Cool.”

“But still,” the king continues, “in all these hundreds of years, no one has dared try to enter it?”

“There have been brave adventurers,” she admits. “My father once told me of a brave knight, having won the right to seek out the Sword, at a time when we had lost our faith in legend. This knight, the bravest and most skilled of all, was never seen again.”

“Whoa,” says John, “you mean it’s guarded or something?”

“By the Krevetat, no doubt,” I add.

“I don’t know of the Krevetat,” Dayona replies, “but it is said the Sword of Truth is watched over by a great bear, possibly the mother of all ever-bears.”

“Okay, so this monster bear is, like, the main boss we have to defeat,” comments John.

“I don’t know if it can be defeated, but legend says that it will allow thee, John, to enter.”

“Got it. So, when do we go? Tomorrow?”

“Have patience. The Sword has awaited thy coming for ages, it can wait a few days more. The best of my woodsmen, Llyr, has not yet returned to Westmoor. We shall have him guide thou three on thy quest when he returns.”

“Nice. We get to hang out here for a few days in this castle, fill up on this great food. Closest I’ve been to home since the Fourth of July.”

“What happened on July the Fourth?”

“That’s the night me and Tom walked through the portal to Angoll from Earth.”

“Tell us about your Earth,” suggests Lord Irwen.

“Oh, Earth is great! You know how you guys here have to walk around, or ride horses, for days? Well, on Earth we have what we call cars. Like your wagons, but they don’t need horses to get around. And they go really, really fast…”

“They don’t need horses?” the Constable’s wife asks.

“Magic,” Lord Irwen tells.

“No, no,” explains John. “They run on gas. It’s like your oil, but it burns more. It explodes, in the engine.”

Lord Irwen looks back blankly, confused. “And do thou have transports, as the Gargoyles?”

“Oh, yes. Only we call them airplanes, and ours have wings, that keep them in the air.”

“Like a bird’s?”

“Yeah. Yeah…. But what I was saying before, about how you guys take forever to get around on Angoll, is that on Earth we have what we call the Internet. And it’s this place, that’s not really a place, that you can go to on any computer or tablet, and you can see pictures and videos and learn all about stuff. And you can talk to people far, far away.”

“It sounds… amazing.”

“And do thou have stories, legends, about us?” asks the Constable’s wife. “About Angoll?”

“Yeah. I mean, we don’t call it Angoll. But now that I think about it, it’s kind of like Never-Never Land, or maybe that’s your Lands of Knowledge. But I don’t know if you have pirates out there.”

“I’m certain we do. Those Tethalian pirates, no doubt. And legend speaks of Raiders sailing to Angoll from your Earth, even after the Lost War. Looting, stealing.”

“Captain Hook!”

“Who?”

“He had a hook for a hand, because a crocodile ate it.”

“Oh!” the Constable’s wife gasps.

After eating, John, carrying a large candle, the king, and I, carrying my quiver, find our way back through the dark hallway to the room where we slept last night. Through the door, but for a dim barrage of moonlight scattering across the room from outside the window, we find it cool and shadowy. We enter—the king crossing to the window. John sets the candle in a candle holder just inside the door, providing a little more light. I throw my quiver down and sit on the edge of the bed, yawning, blinking my tired eyes.

“Well,” the king says, looking out the window, “the festivities are over and we’re in a castle. What’s to do around here?”

“Sleep,” I exclaim.

The king steps away from the wall. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not tired.”

“Me neither,” John adds.

“Well, I am,” I say. “It’s been a long day. We’ve journeyed far, and we need some rest.”

“Fine,” the king huffs, flinging his backpack off onto the bed. “Stay here and watch over the king’s backpack. I’m going to stride on down to the courtyard to see what the guards are doing out there. Or maybe… check out their stables!”

“Yeah!” John spurts. “I’m with you, buddy.”

My two companions leave the room, shutting the door. I know I should follow them, if only to keep them out of trouble, but I find myself falling back onto the comfortable mattress in a sigh. And moments later I drift into sleep.

I wake to the sound of two loud voices out in the hallway. When I open my eyes as I sit up, they are gone. The flame of the candle beside the open door is nearly out, its wax dripping down along the wall and onto the floor, its wick curled up and hanging to the side. Still shadowy, still night—the beams of moonlight no longer shine through the window.

The queen Dayona appears standing in the doorway, holding a candle, accompanied by one of her young handmaidens. She smiles fondly. “Your Majesty,” I acknowledge her.

“Where are the others?” she asks.

“They’re probably off on some adventure, knowing them. They’ll show up sooner or not.”

“I came to wish thee a good evening, and to invite thee to join us on our royal hunt tomorrow.”

“Thank you. I would be honored to join you, and I’m certain the others would be so as well.”

The king steps through to the door from the other end of the hallway. “Well,” he says, “time to get some sleep after all.”

“Where’s John?” I ask him.

“I think I lost him down by the stables somewhere. I don’t know where he’s snuck off to.”

“Should we look for him?” the queen suggests.

“No, no, I don’t think so,” I reply. “He’ll be okay. We start getting worried if he doesn’t show up for breakfast.” I turn to the king. “You didn’t lose him on purpose, did you?”

“Well,” the king contemplates. “I suppose that depends on the way you look at it.”

“Please, Sire, tell us your tale.”

“It’s like this—we were down at the stables, looking at all the horses, when John shouted something to me about not knowing how to get to the dungeon.”

“The dungeon?” questions the queen. “Wherefore would thou want to go there?”

“To check it out.”

“But you didn’t know. You couldn’t have—no one told us.”

“Yes, but I thought I could find it. I mean, a castle’s a castle. Right? Well, at any rate, John was getting rather upset while I was calmly admiring the horses. He yelled something again, but this time it was about us being lost…” He turns back to the queen, “which is quite ridiculous, you know, because I never get lost.” He turns back to me, “ever.”

“Let’s hurry on the part where you lose John.”

“I was just coming to that. Anyway, we decided to go back to the room. John said that we should go left, and I insisted on going right. He said this way and I said that way, and on and on and on it went. John could not—we could not come to a decision, so—”

“How did you decide where to go? Or did you?”

“In times like that I find it many times useful to consult a third party. Well, there was me, there was John, and there were horses. So, I consulted a horse—he went by the name of Edward, I think. Anyway, because, as you may know, horses can’t talk, I of course couldn’t talk to that horse. And I couldn’t very well consult that animal.”

“Would you hurry up and get to your point.”

“Well, I guess the point really is that he went left and I went right. And, because I’m never wrong about such things, I’m here and he isn’t.”

I turn to the queen, “are the stables far from here?”

“They are on the other side of the castle,” she answers. “The part about John seeking out the dungeons disturbed me. I shall order my guard to find and escort him back here.”

I jump to my feet and approach her. “No, let me go. I’ll find help if I need it” I motion for her to lower and I lean closer and continue softly. “Just keep watch over the king, if you will.”

“I shall.”

“Ask him to tell you a tale,” I suggest. She smiles down at me, nods, and I move into the hallway.

“I hear thou art a great storyteller,” Dayona starts as I continue down the dark hallway toward the staircase.

“I am!” I hear him declare. “One of the best.”

I walk down the staircase and make my way out into the inner courtyard. The dogs are asleep in their pin. Their handler is apparently also asleep, crouching over himself upon a stool against the stone wall.

The inner gate is open. I proceed through it, past two castle guards, who nod in respect as I pass. “My lord,” one acknowledges. I nod in response.

Passing into the outer courtyard, the drawbridge of the wall shut, the moon peers over the thin, wispy clouds, bearing down beams of light, highlighting the parapet of the castle wall. Torches are lit along the top of the wall and towers as a few castle guards patrol across it. I proceed along the inner wall until eventually turning the corner and spotting John ahead, speaking with two guards.

“John!” I call, hurrying my pace toward him.

“Jed,” he says. “What’s up?”

“Yer the good sir you bested Sir Mortimer at the bow, aren’t ye?”

“That’s right,” I say, walking up to them.

“He’s always been a fierce looking fellow, all huffy-tuffy and that—I’m just glad someone finally shabbed and humbled him, especially a fopdoodle like yerself!” He pats my back.

“A fopdoodle?”

He laughs. “Forgive me, lord. Just what some have called yer people. Ye are no fopdoodle.”

“He’s a real hero,” adds John. “We couldn’t have made it here without him.”

“Quit dringling and get back to yer station!” yells a guard from up on the castle wall.

“Yeah. Get back to work, you dopes!” John chuckles as the two guards run off across the courtyard. “What’s up, buddy?”

“We have a big day with the queen tomorrow, going off on a hunting trip.”

“A hunting trip? With the queen?! Awesome! Let’s go and get some sleep!” he leaves but stops himself and turns back. “How do we get back to the room again?”

The Wild Hunt

The newly awaken sun parts the thin, misty veil of night and glistens across the rolling fields of green north of the castle. I on a pony, the king on one beside me, trotting up the rear of the Kretan Rahnat hunting party on horseback. Leading are three knights. The first, Sir Robin, is not armored but for a breastplate and sword, holding up a long flag with the emblem of the red dragon, fluttering in the breeze—the others, fully dressed in plated steel. Directly behind these rides the queen on a white horse with blue eyes and fluffy mane. She wears a velvet dress with little sleeve, revealing delicately muscular arms. Across her shoulder is a fine longbow, upon her back a quiver of arrows, and beneath her dress attached to the saddle is a large, curved hunting horn. Behind her rides the Master of the Hunt with John sharing a ride on a large steed—they lead a pack of hounds, surrounded by two other huntsmen.

Like this we ride northeastward with little break for much of the day until we come in sight of the beech trees of Core Wood forest, away in the east. The dogs bark. The Master of the Hunt calls us to stop upon a meadow carpeted with a field of small, purplish flowers intermixed with greens, underneath a light canopy of the drooping branches of tall birch trees. He commands the two other huntsmen to gallop ahead to track our roebuck prey. Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. A woodpecker on a trunk nearby continues its work, unabated by our presence.

The huntsmen return not more than an hour later to tell a sad tale. The carcass of the scented roebuck was found, apparently downed and half-eaten by an ever-bear. Disappointed, we clear an area in the middle of the meadow and decide to make camp here for the evening. Eventually a fire is lit. We keep a watchful eye upon the wilderness about us, though I fear nothing tonight from those fell beasts out there with the knights of the Kretan Rahnat to protect us.

We do not speak much after the Krevetat call the sun to its nightly station. The huntsmen sleep, the hounds are quiet, but the queen, John, the king, and I remain awake near the heat of the flames. The queen tells a legend of a mound just to the north of our encampment—anyone who would dare sit at its peak will not leave again without receiving either a deadly blow or an amazing wonder. John is curious. He and the king talk of going to see if the legend is true, accompanied by the knights to protect from any possible attack, but the queen and I talk them out of it.

I wake in the early light of dawn, the knocking of the woodpecker heard once more across the meadow. I lift my head and turn across the embers of the fire to find the king still asleep but John missing. The queen and the Master of the Hunt stand nearby beside the hounds, tied up with leather leads to a log, and our steeds. I wake the king.

“Sire!” I say. “Sire, John… He is gone. He left us.”

“What?” the king replies and rises to his feet. I do also.

“Good morrow to thee, lords,” Dayona acknowledges.

“Where is John?”

“He left with Sir Robin before the rest of us woke. I fear he has gone to sit upon the mound.”

Krevetat, be with us. I hurry to grab my bow and arrows. The king picks up his backpack and a sword given to him by the Kretan Rahnat. “We need to find him,” the king says.

“We shall,” responds Dayona.

The dogs bark loudly. The Master of the Hunt turns his head and sniffs the coming breeze. “A roebuck, and a fine one at that!” he declares as he hurries to the dogs’ leads. He unties them one at a time, yelling, “Off ye dogs! Off!” The hounds bark and run off across the meadow.

The queen grabs her longbow and quiver from her horse, throwing them around her shoulders. She next unfastens the hunting horn from the saddle, lifts it high in the air, and blows. Blooor! Blooor! Its loud, ear-ringing tone shouts out through the air.

The Master of the Hunt runs after the dogs. Dayona turns. “Come, lords!” she calls to the king and I with delight. “The hunt is on!” She turns to hurry after the huntsman.

I turn to the king, and he to me, in an awkward look. He shrugs his shoulders, and we both run across our encampment after the others.

The king and I find the queen and the master huntsman over a hillside past the trees where a large roebuck with magnificent antlers lies on the ground before a wall of shrubs, the hounds upon it. The Master of the Hunt calls, “heel! Heel!” The dogs back from the buck.

The queen swiftly strings an arrow to her bow, aims just as the buck struggles to raise its head and shoots, hitting the arrow through the animal’s neck. The master huntsman goes to her. “Well done, Your Majesty,” he complements.

While the other two huntsmen and two armed knights gather around the kill, the queen commands the knights accompany the king and I north toward the mound in search of John and Sir Robin. Hence, we separate. The king and I with the two knights march around the birch tree meadow northwestward at a quick pace. Leaving the trees behind us, we travel straight northward across a vast field toward a few wooded hills far ahead.

The first hill we come upon, the afore-mentioned mound, is not high and extends far to the left and right. It is covered in a light wooded area of various trees with a fat oak and tall birch here and there. We proceed immediately up its slope and soon come in view of its peak, bare of trees and covered in large, dark-colored stones, surrounded by a thin layer of mist. Sir Robin with sword ready, circles the stones in a watchful look. Upon seeing us, he approaches. “He is gone. John was here, and he vanished.”

“Not again,” I mumble. The knights who accompany us draw their swords.

“What happened?” asks the king.

“John sat in the middle of these stones. I turned to watch the area. A mist came up quickly along the slope. I turned back… and he was gone.”

I remove the bow from my shoulder, the king draws his sword, and the five of us scatter to search the hill. Leaving the others, I step slowly past the stones into the grasses between the tree trunks, the mists parting away about my ankles. The woods about me seem full of life, yet other than the soft sound of my steps against the woodland floor, all is silent—even the wind has ceased. As I move, I turn my eyes across the landscape with care to observe everything there is, every tree, every shrub, but there is no sign of our companion.

After perhaps an hour more of searching, I walk back up the slope toward the stones. And there, between them, stands John, looking stiff and bewildered. “Sire!” I call. “He is here! He is here!” I race up past the stone to John’s side.

The king, Sir Robin, and the others appear nearby one by one. The king approaches as I look up at John, studying his astonished countenance. “What happened?” asks the king. “What happened? Did you see a wonder?”

“He did!” cries Sir Robin. “Look at him! He saw a wonder.” Sir Robin, followed by the other two knights, sheath their swords.

“I sat down,” John begins. “I sat down, right here, on this rock right here in the middle. I really didn’t expect anything to really happen. Sir Robin was over by the trees, but there was nothing else, nobody else around. So, I waited. But then this fog started blowing over the ground from the woods behind me. It blew in real fast, like there was wind—but there wasn’t. When it came over my feet, I stood up. I looked over at Sir Robin, who was looking away, and then I saw it! I saw it.”

“What?” asks the king. “Tell us. What did you see?”

“A unicorn! A real unicorn!”

“Was it white? Did it have a long horn?”

“Yes. Yes, all of that. Long, straight horn, like one of those twisting type shells. Fluffy, white mane, tail. Little beard under his chin…. I was going to call Sir Robin over, you know, but I looked and he wasn’t there.

“So, this unicorn, he bobbed his head, calling me over. So, that’s what I did—I walked over, and he walked away. I followed him. The fog was really thick then, like I was back in the Swamps, but I could see the unicorn. I was getting worried if I didn’t keep going, I’d get lost. So, I kept following him until the fog cleared, and I could see we were in this rocky gorge. Up ahead, the rocky walls stopped.

“Past the walls, the unicorn turned away. In front of me was a sandy beach, where there was a big orange tree. Under it, lying on the sand, was a giant bear. Not one of those bird-faced bears, but a regular bear—with these huge wings on his back. And standing beside him was, I guess, the Griffin.”

“The Griffin?” asks the king with interest.

“Yeah. He was kind of short, but taller than you. He was wearing a robe, but he had an eagle head, and furry, bear-like arms, and some big wings were folded on his back. He said my name. I went over, and he told me to get onto this eagle-bear on the ground. I did, and he did, and we flew off!

“We flew over some mountains, and down below was a great plain, where there was a huge battle going on. Gargoyles, monsters, knights, Deforians—all fighting with swords and arrows. And the Griffin told me—he told me, he said, the fate of Angoll depends on me, on my strength, my courage! Man, it was such a shock. I mean, who am I, you know? I’m just seventeen. I’m barely even a man.

“Well, we flew back down where the fog was thick. I got off—and when the fog cleared again, I was here, with you guys.”

By the Krevetat! They have given us a vision of the future, and an uncertain one at that. I always knew there would one day be another great war, against the accursed beasts of Morgana, but it never felt more real until now. All the same, though, the strength and brotherhood which we need to defeat Morgana has never been so real either.

After staring up and studying John’s stern, silent countenance, the king approaches him. I follow. “You okay?” the king asks.

“I’ve never taken anything seriously in my life! Except maybe flight school, but that didn’t last long. But, hey, I’m with you guys for the fight.”

“We’re proud to have you as a faithful companion on our journeys,” I tell him.

“I want you to know, when it comes down to it, you are my king, too, Kalla. You are my king, and I’m proud to fight alongside you guys—for the glory of Angoll!”

“For the glory of Angoll!”

John grabs the king’s hand in a strong grasp of brotherhood. Next, I too share a firm hand with John. He smiles, and we turn to leave the mound for the others.

Once we return to our meadow camp, we share only few words of John’s revelation with the queen, who is quite astonished nonetheless and very proud of John’s bravery in deciding to conquer the mound’s mysteries. In our absence, a second buck was killed, and the huntsmen tie both carcasses to the back of their horses. The hounds are rounded up, our supplies gathered, and we all ride back to the castle with weary limbs and a renewed sense of unity.

The Scent of Evil

I wake up in bed to the sweet, ashy smell of rainwater. A gentle stream of rain drops thrum against the stone window frame, some splattering onto the floor of our room, lit by a dim sunlight overcast by cloud. Beside me the king sleeps under cover, but John is not here. And so, enlivened by the hope of a new dawn, and curious about our companion’s exploits, I drop from the bedside, slip on my boots, and leave the room. The king is secure for now, and needs his rest. As do I, but sleep is not forthcoming.

Down the staircase, I walk along the hallway past the inner courtyard, water dripping from the archways, splashing on the muddied soil. However peaceful, the castle is at the same time oddly quiet. Only a few human servants, mostly female in simple dress, acknowledge me as I pass—some do not, going about their businesses unhindered. And no knights can I see—not in the courtyard or elsewhere. The dogs are back in their pin, resting and silent.

I pass through the great hall. Most of the tables are cleared, though two along one wall are filled with nobles wearing loose-fitting, nightly attire, eating bread and drinking. Rain water falls from above, splattering the ashen pool of water in the fire pit onto the surrounding stone floor. The humans pay me no attention as I continue across the space for the archway ahead.

I stop at the archway into the throne room. Within, just before the throne dais, is John, being led by the queen who gently grasps his arm, in maneuvering a sword. John wears clean, loose pants but no shirt nor shoes—his hair and beard still wet from a recent bathing, groomed. Dayona’s hair likewise is wet. Without dress now, she wears loose leggings and silken shirt. She leads John’s sword bearing arm slowly around from his back, sideways as a parry. Having him hold position, she steps up to the throne to grab another sword. Returning, she swings it against his. They pause, looking deeply at each other, and she smiles as only she can.

Feeling alone, I turn back into the hall and make my way around the wet floor about the pit, snatching a freshly backed bun from a bowl just laid. Biting into it, I continue out of the chamber, giving no notice to the humans.

I notice the king. He approaches me as I again come upon an archway out into the wet courtyard. “And where are you off to?” he asks.

“Watching over our companion, John,” I reply.

“I don’t think he needs our watching over. Not anymore, anyways.”

“Where are all the knights, I wonder?”

“Everybody is at odds after hearing about John’s experience on the mound. I don’t think open war was ever considered. Now, with all these Gargoyles and other creatures around, they’re all nervous.”

“But, where are they?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t we go up to one of these towers, to see what we can see?”

“Excellent idea.” I take a bite of bread.

“And I’m hungry.” The king hurries back toward the great hall, and I follow.

After the king grabs some bread for himself, and nearly gets us caught up in a dispute with the nobles at table over whether the Raiders of old ever rid Angoll of the Gargoyles in the first place. While the lands of the Kretan Rahnat were free of the pestilence for hundreds of years, we of the Garden Realm seemed to always be weary of them. And for that regard, many at the castle still do not believe Morgana is leading them, or has ever led them, since the days of the Lost War, or that she lives at all.

The rain has ceased and the sun returns. Making our way into the outer courtyard, we find the drawbridge closed. Guards patrol along the top of the wall, and so we head to one of the towers. Climbing to the top, we step out onto the walkway and peer over high the parapet, a great many penses above ground. A light breeze strikes us, fluttering a flag of the red dragon on a mast nearby. Far away, near a light wooded area in the vast plains surrounding the castle, a battalion of knights ride on horseback in formation.

“Methinks Gargoyles were seen last night,” mentions a human guard approaching us. “All Her Majesty’s knights have been called to patrol around Westmoor. I might catch a glimpse of one, but I doubt it.”

“Haven’t they come here before?” asks the king.

“Often times. But they have never dared come near the castle, not in my recollection.”

We peer off again into the distance as the knights’ steeds pick up their pace and gallop around the trees. Still not a sign of danger. All seems so peaceful from up here, high over the world. And so, we stand, watching the lands, until a call is heard from the courtyard behind. “Guard! Guard!” shouts a herald up to the castle guard who has walked away along the wall. “The queen requests ye lords’ presence, in her throne room!”

“It seems, my lords, you are called upon,” the guard tells us.

“Well,” says he king. “Good day to you.”

“Good day to you, my lords.”

After we make our way down, the herald leads us back to the throne room, where two armored castle guards wait. The queen sits upon the throne, wearing the same shirt but now with dress. John stands before her in front of the dais—beside stand Sir Robin, without armor, the Constable, and several noble men and women. Three young maids watch onward from the back doorway. As we are led before the throne, the nobles step aside. The king and I approach John.

“Lords of Deforia,” begins Dayona, “Welcome.”

“Your Majesty,” acknowledges he king.

“John’s vision tells us that war with the forces of Morgana may come sooner than we thought. We must strengthen our defenses and send word to all who live in these lands to take heed. Gargoyles have been seen gathering near Core Wood. Our woodsmen keep watch, but we beseech our knights to fortify Westmoor.”

“Westmoor is secure, Your Majesty,” Sir Robin acknowledges.

“We shall prevail. Yet, still, these are dangerous and confusing times, and like never in our lifetimes, we seek aid. We have dispatched a herald on our fastest steed westward to send word to Astoria. May the Keepers of Angoll watch over us even now.”

“And may the Krevetat show us favor,” I say.

“Yea, and may the Krevetat be with us,” she adds. “John, from the Land of the Dawn, step forward.”

John solemnly steps up to the dais. The king turns to me and we share a brief bewilderment while all other eyes quietly watch the queen as she goes to the throne and raises her sword. Turning again, John kneels and bows his head. She approaches.

“What say you?”

“I swear to always defend and pledge allegiance to my lady,” begins John, “and to the order of the red dragon. I swear to never lie, to be good and always help those in need. I swear to… be brave, and never be afraid to fight. I swear to never, um…”

“Always face an opponent—,” Sir Robin softly clarifies.

“To never stab somebody in the back, and always be just.”

“Fare enough,” the queen says, smiling. She raises the sword and lowers it to each of John’s shoulders in turn. “As Queen of the Kretan Rahnat, Lady of the Red Dragon, I dub thee Sir John. Arise, brave knight!”

John stands. I approach, as does the king. “Now you’re a lord,” I say. “Finally.”

“Congratulations,” says the king.

“Thanks, buddy,” he answers. “Jed. You guys got me here. I just wish Tom was here to see this.”

“He’d be very proud.”

“I know he would.”

Sir Robin firmly takes John’s shoulder. “Now let’s get thee suited up,” the knight says.

“Off on your duties already?” asks the king.

“Got to defend the realm, you know,” John follows.

We are all startled as a castle guard with spear in hand races into the room. “Gargoyles! Gargoyles, outside the castle wall!”

The two guards at the entrance draw swords and run off. “Sir Robin,” Dayona orders, “take John to the armory, then gather the last of the knights in the bailey. Kalla, thou two lords, await us in the keep.”

The nobles scatter. Sir Robin and John run out through the archway. The queen with her sword runs out the back, followed by the maidens. The king and I are soon left alone. “I’m not going to run and hide,” declares the king.

“Neither am I, Sire,” I say. “I’m going back to our room to grab my bow.”

“Let’s go!” he says, and we run out through the great hall.

Racing back past the inner courtyard, we find the hallways replete with activity. Servants and nobles, some now with children, race about. The dogs are barking loudly as three horses prance in the muddied soil as men with sword and shield hastily mount them. Calls and shouts to defend this and lock that are heard.

Whoo-oom! A shadow passes quickly over the courtyard—the horses jump, one fighter nearly falling off his mount. The king and I stop and peek out under an archway at the sky, catching sight of the metal form of one of Morgana’s transports flying just over the castle wall.

“Transports!” I shout.

“Let’s go!” the king says, and we hurry away.

I run with the king up to our room where I put on my red-hooded cape, grab my bow, and throw the quiver of arrows over my shoulder. The king grabs his backpack, and we run out amid the distant shiiing and clang of metal, screams and tramplings, outside the window.

We run out across the outer courtyard toward the tower as before. The drawbridge closes while many armored guards run about. We run up the stairs and finally get to the top, out of breath. We step out behind the parapet of the wall, confronted with a horrendous sight—the plains about the castle are filled the knights of the Kretan Rahnat. Those on foot clash swords with Gargoyles, while those on horseback, lances held out, ride against one of the transports as it dives at them from above. The transport smashes into them, knocking them from their steeds. Blood, bodies. Many Gargoyles are killed, horses, many more humans.

“This isn’t going so well,” I comment.

“I see you’ve noticed by wonderful transports,” a dark voice startles me from behind. “They’re doing a fine job. It’s a shame they’re only a distraction for capturing you. You, the king of idiocy, and your friend, the Earthling.”

I turn slowly to see the Gargoyle Charmit standing with wings folding onto his back, standing at the edge of the walkway. Instinctively, I grasp my bow grip, but stop when I notice another Gargoyle beside the king with sword drawn. Charmit smiles a rotten smile.

“What do you want with us this time?” asks the king.

Charmit backs the king against stone. While the king looks up with indignation, the master beast stares down in contempt. “You won’t be so bold once you face Morgana, and suffer her judgement for your disrespect.”

I look off to the side along the wall. One of the transports, flying at the knights near the ground, is struck by a knight’s lance, piercing its hull. Metal ripped open, the transport crashes to the cheers of knights. Charmit pays no notice.

“Disrespect for what?” the king delightfully responses.

Charmit growls. “Disrespect for Morgana’s reign!”

“Please, don’t make me laugh.”

Charmit swipes his clawed hand across the king’s snout. Blood. The king falls. Grasping bow, I reach for an arrow but I’m blocked by blade. “I’ll take that,” a Gargoyle perched beside me commands, reaching for my bow. I remove it.

The Gargoyle Horgog, wings out, drops beside Charmit. He chuckles. “Your legion is failing, my ambitious master! The Kretan Rahnat have routed us!”

“What?!” Charmit looks off past the wall. I turn too. The door of the crashed transport is open—bloodied Gargoyle bodies lie about it as knights climb aboard. No other transports are seen, and the few other Gargoyles are flying off into the distance. “What happened to my transports?!

“Orders were given,” snickers Horgog, “actions carried out.”

“Whose orders?! Horgog!”

“You, Charmit, with these careless misjudgments of your opponent’s strengths, are going to be the end of us!”

Charmit jerks toward Horgog. The Gargoyle beside me lowers his sword, watching the feud. “I gave no such orders!” Charmit charges.

“You are so much the fool. The Kretan Rahnat’s steel overpowers our metals.”

“Where is the Earthling? Retrieve him for me!”

“You are the leader of the Gargoyles. You do it.”

“What did you say? I gave you an order!”

“I take orders from Morgana, not fools.”

“Why you ungrateful—!” Charmit lunges at Horgog. Horgog’s wing flaps around his body, and Charmit slashes it with claw. Charmit’s wings out, one nearly hitting me as I dunk, they both fly up, wrestling each other in the air. I look up at the Gargoyle beside me, who seems affixed at the brawl above.

A rumble comes up the staircase of the tower. Three knights emerge. The remaining Gargoyle soars off just as a knight’s sword slams past into the stone wall underneath.

Charmit shoves Horgog away—one wing tucked, Horgog falls momentarily, soon catching a bubble of air in both mighty wings just before he hits the walkway. Flap, flap. He zooms away from the castle.

Charmit, roaring loudly, spreads his wings wide—they thump, beat, against the air so that he seems to float in position. “You perpetuous fools! Do you actually think you can stand up to the might of Morgana?!”

A barrage of arrows whisk past, one sticking into the tip of Charmit’s wing. He screams in rage, snapping the arrow in two with his hand. Blood drips. He shoots upward, spreading his wings again as he stares down from high above. “Next time there will be more of us,” he shouts. “More than you know!” He flies away.

“Are you injured, Sire,” I say, going to the king.

“I’m okay,” he says. A shallow scratch runs along his snout. We turn to see, from behind the knights, the queen, squeezing past them along the walkway, sheathing her sword.

“We came as quickly as we could. Art thou hurt?”

Looking down to the walkway by the parapet, to catch my senses, I catch a glimpse of some shiny object near the stone, only an inch round, apparently dropped by one of the Gargoyles. It catches the king’s eye too—he reaches down the pick it up. Seeming mystified, he stares at it in his hand. “What is it?” I ask.

“The Royal Seal!” proclaims Dayona, looking at it. “The seal of the Deforian Empire!”

“Let me see it,” I assert, and the king shows me. It is a golden pendant, with etching of the downward triangle inscribed in a circle with a flying hawk over it. It can only be from the Garden Realm. “By the Krevetat!” I exclaim as I take it from his hand. “It’s from the Garden Realm!”

“How did they—” the king begins. “Do you think there was an attack on the Realm?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know we shouldn’t have come here. We should have returned!”

“And we will.”

The queen comes around behind us and lowers. “The Gargoyles’ attack proves they know of thee, and maybe too thy quest for the Sword. We cannot wait till Llyr’s return. Thou shalt move now, while the Gargoyles are scattered.”

“But we need help from your woodsman,” says the king, “who will guide us.”

“We must seek him out on his return to Westmoor. The Gargoyles won’t be expecting our sudden departure.”

Our departure?”

“We shall send word for Llyr to meet us at Silver Stone Meadow. I shall go with you, to show you the way.”

Flight into Darkness

Soon the four of us, me, the king, John, and Dayona, gather in the outer courtyard before the open drawbridge. Dayona’s steed and two ponies for the me and the king are loaded with plenty of dry food rations, each with a waterskin, steel for striking, and a compass. This wondrous device can show accurate direction, by always pointing northward, come rain or come sun, by a means I do not understand. But it is not magic. Yes, I have heard of such a thing, but I have never seen one.

John, or rather, Sir John (I’m going to take a while to get used to that without incessant heckling), wears a chainmail vest with steel helmet and has a sword. He’ll always be that clumsy oaf I’ve grown accustomed to. Dayona wears a fine suit of leather armor, carries a sword at her waist, and a shield on her back. The king and I have been given short swords—me with my bow and quiver full of arrows. So, what I’m trying to say is, we look ready, we seem well-prepared for the darkness that surely lies ahead, but do we feel ready? From the king’s annoying, delighted countenance and John’s proud stance, at least two of us are.

The queen has sent off two of her woodsmen ahead of us downstream to send word to Llyr to meet us at Silver Stone Meadow in Core Wood. As for the charge over Westmoor Castle, she leaves the Constable. Sir Robin wishes us well on our quest, and we are off. John, still being very squeamish about riding a horse on his own (having fallen of the saddle earlier into the muddied dog pin after yelling “Hi ho, Silver, away!”), rides behind Dayona on the back of her horse. Following them, the king and I ride our ponies, and we head at a quick pace down the road southeastward toward the creek. It doesn’t take long for John to grow weary of the weight of his helmet, and upon crossing the stream, he tosses it away into the water.

We journey eastward across the plains, making good distance with few stops until evening when we come in sight of the southern end of Core Wood. Here we make camp underneath the shade of three trees on a hillside. We do not light a fire but each in turn keep watch during the night.

At sunrise, we make an early start and pass through the thinly spaced beech tree trunks of Core Wood until midday. A ceiling of light-green leaves shadows the forest floor so that nothing but the trees grow, though life abounds. A Gackgackle is seen passing through the trees ahead of us, and since no Gackgackles have ever been seen in the lands of the Kretan Rahnat, John and the king go off ahead on foot to investigate. They return soon after with news of an encampment in a nearby clearing, and we all proceed to spy on whatever is going on, walking our rides as quietly as possible.

Coming to a ridge covered in vines, we climb it on our bellies. Over the top, peering through shrubs across a lowland clearing, we see a large tent of violet-colored linen spread over a roughly erected structure of tree branches. The Gackgackle, a short, furry being, wearing a leather pouch over one shoulder and dressed only with a thin, draping scarf around his waist. He approaches the tent entrance, voicing chirping and clicking sounds.

“Isn’t that the one who stole your backpack a ways back?” asks John.

“I don’t know,” replies the king, watching intently.

The Gackgackle backs away as an old Deforian wearing a golden robe and a large, pointed, drooping hat, emerges. The Deforian hunches over against a twisted walking stick, turning his head. His bulging eyes nearly draw my attention away from the unusual overbite of his snout.

“Galidor!” John remarks.

“What’s he doing here?” ponders the king.

“Who is he?” asks the queen.

“Galidor,” John says. “An evil wizard. He captured us once, and we only got away because of Astoria.

“Be off with you!” Galidor orders the Gackgackle. “And then bring me news of those wretched Gargoyles!”

The Gackgackle gurgles, bows, and runs across the clearing into the trees.

“At least we know he’s not in league with the Gargoyles,” I assert.

“He was after that Stone of Power,” adds John.

“The one thou destroyed?” asks Dayona.

“Yeah,” he chuckles. “Too bad for him.”

Approaching now from the trees come three large ever-bears, crawling up slowly before Galidor. Upon raising his staff high, creatures rise onto their hind legs. “Wait,” John catches his breath. “What’s this?”

“Looks like he’s now controlling these ever-bears,” observes the king, “like he was those slimy pond creatures.”

“This can’t be good.”

We watch. The top of Galidor’s staff shines in a bright blue light. He waves it before him. The ever-bears drop to the ground and crawl away.

“What are we going to do?” asks the king.

“If he is indeed a wizard,” Dayona says, “we need to keep a distance until we have magic of our own.”

“Then I suggest, Sire,” I add, “we sneak away and continue our quest. I don’t think he is after us, so any threat he may pose can wait.”

“Agreed. We shall wait for word from Astoria. We will alert our knights to his presence, but for now we shall keep to our quest for the Sword.”

Galidor promptly returns to the cover of his tent, and the four of us back away down the ridge. We rise to our feet, only to hear neighing, snorting, and trampling through underbrush. The queen turns to John in shock, draws her sword, and races through the trees. The rest of us follow—my companions with swords and I with my bow off shoulder.

Minutes later we come where we left our rides. An ever-bear in a roar slashes the king’s pony to the ground. Blood spills. My pony lies lifeless on its side, and a second ever-bear pounces onto the queen’s steed as it gallops away, knocking it down, tearing into its hide with beak.

We halt. I ready arrow to bow as Dayona leaps forward in a scream, landing atop the first ever-bear and stabbing it with sword. I shoot an arrow, hitting the second bear in the head. Both creatures and our rides are dead.

We assemble before the massacre, coming to our senses. The queen and John sheath their weapons. The king sighs. “Galidor might just know about us being out here now.”

“Gather all the supplies we can carry,” says Dayona. “We must make haste.”

We all hurry around the horse and ponies. John and Dayona each throw a large saddle pouch over their shoulders. The king removes his backpack—he and I start stuffing all the rations we can inside it from our ponies. Packed to our fullest, with waterskins and bags full of all else, we hurry away without pause through the trees eastward.

Thus, weary and downtrodden, we continue onward for several more hours underneath the thick canopy of beech trees, shadowing nearly the entire forest floor from direct sunlight amid the disperse trunks. The floor of the forest is a cover of fallen, brown leaves—light-green leaves, glowing in the sun, everywhere above. John, who is certain now we are being followed or watched, stops us. He tells us of having seen a figure moving between the trees at a great distance. “It had to be about my height,” he reports. “It stood for a moment beside a tree trunk, spying on us. It was too far to see good, but I don’t think it was human. Maybe Gargoyle.”

“There are other woodsmen in these lands,” the queen tells him. “Often times, they watch but do not approach. Me thinks thy eyes have deceived you, good John. We cannot see how it could have been a Gargoyle. They are never alone, and if they were many, they would have attacked.”

“Not unless they’re planning something.”

Dayona sighs, looking off through the beech woods. “Thou mayest be right. Yet we shall not stop again until we reach the meadow. We should not have stopped this long. Keep watch, but we will continue nonetheless.”

Hesitant and insecure, we march onward across the wet, dead leaves. I pull out a piece of dry bread and bite into it, staring off past the rounded terrain of trees and leaves as he go ahead in silence. Even the wildlife has seemed to quiet, as if also watching and waiting. I take a swig of my waterskin, and just as the liquid hits my stomach, a churning nausea inside rises, a feeling, like a sign given by the Krevetat, of impeding despair hidden. The meaning of it remains entangled somewhere within the tapestry of reflected sunlight and the life-giving presence about us. The wind seems to have vanished, yet whiffs of musty, earthy, fresh summer leaves are stronger than ever.

By noon we reach Silver Stone Meadow. Completely cleared of trees, covered in crisp grass and rich in violet flowers, it is level but for one small hill at its center. Everywhere about the green mound, smothered in the hot breath of Shorneyah’s bright radiance, are many large stones, gleaming with specks of silver through the tall blades of grass. This is how, I guess, the meadow got its name.

We walk out into the sunshine across the moist soil, the blades of grass, at the edge of the clearing rising almost to the waists of me and the king. We climb the hill where the ground is drier and the stones more plentiful, and here stop for a rest. Removing our supplies, the king and I sit. The king lays back.

“This sun feels so good right now,” the king says, putting his hands behind his head and closing his eyes.

“What do we do now?” John asks the queen, glancing around the meadow. “Just wait here?”

“Not here,” she answers. “Not on the hill. In the shade of the trees. But first we should separate and search the area for any signs of danger.

“Oh, well,” the king says. “Looks like sleep has to wait.”

The four of us separate. John and the king go one way, the queen and I go others. We carefully search everywhere across the large clearing and catch sight of nothing unusual. About an hour passes when we meet again beside the glade. John and the king are late as expected. Only the king brings news of any kind, but the building of a large ant hill is of no concern to us.

After a boring hour or more of just sitting around and staring at each other, we open our supplies to eat the last meal of the day. The taste of our rations is quite unsavory, but we’ve gotten used to it. At least we try to ignore it. The king looks down at the crumbs in his hand before tossing them aside. “I’m not hungry,” he snorts. “I’m just going to walk around a bit, see if I can’t find anything interesting.” He walks off.

“Looks like the king’s abandoned us,” suggests John, crumbling the last of his bread into his mouth.

“Don’t wander off too far!” the queen yells after him. He nods and continues past the trees.

“I wonder if school’s started again, back on Earth. I wonder if Tom’s back to his books.”

“What dost thou study?”

“Everything.” He chuckles. “Nothing.”

“Here, ‘tis not proper for women, girls, to be educated. School is for boys only.”

“Back on Earth, in America anyway, girls have to go to school just like boys. Until you graduate, then you can go off to college just like us boys. There really is no difference, unless, you’re like a girl I knew two years ago, who got pregnant and dropped out of school.”

“That’s fascinating. Aren’t girls taught to be good hostesses, good wives?

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“All the stories I grew up with were about brave knights and heroes rescuing damsels in distress, about the chaste lady of the manor who awaits the return of her brave lord from glorious battle. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of being brave myself, of going off on quests by myself, for myself, to faraway lands. Of being a hero.”

You’re educated.”

“For me ‘twas different. My father, the king, he knew one day I might be queen. He had no son, no brothers. My mother died and he would not marry another. So, he taught me to read, he taught me our history. He taught me to fight, to use a sword. I had to keep it a secret.”

“But now you’re the queen.”

“Yes. I am the queen, I can make it known. But I still must be an image to my people. I still cannot take part in battle, in contests.”

“But you can, though. You can—with me.”

“Thou art a peculiar man, Sir John.” She smiles lovingly at him, lightly grasping his hand, and John swallows as if about to choke. “But, yea, I know I can be myself around thee. And that is why I enjoy thy company so much.”

“You said you wanted to travel, but have you gone anywhere far? Where have you been? What have you seen?”

“I’ve been on many hunting trips, but never more than a day’s trek. I’ve ridden Mooncloud, my horse, all around the edges of this land in the west, but I’ve never ventured into the swamps. I’ve traveled to East Point many times, but never have I been to Abbey Wood, nor have I seen the lake, nor Arthur’s Keep. I’m going to miss her so much.”

“Miss who?”

“Mooncloud.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”

“You seem so acclumsid of mind sometimes.”

“Around you, it’s just… You’re so beautiful. You’re so strong and brave…”

She giggles. They stare deeply into each other’s eyes for a moment.

“Please,” I interrupt. “Let’s leave the romance for another time and keep our minds on the dangers we face.”

“There’s no romance,” says John. “What are you talking about?”

“Yes, Jed,” replies the queen. “Wherefore don’t thee go and see where Kalla is off to?”

So much I want to say to that, but all I can do is huff in frustration. Turning away, I wander off across the meadow in the direction the king went. I soon reach the shade of trees and don’t get very far before seeing the king racing toward me between the sparse tree trunks, a Gargoyle flying low to the ground with spear coming up fast behind.

I lower to knee, whip out arrow against bowstring, and shoot. The arrow flies past the king, hitting the winged beast in the shoulder. The Gargoyle crashes against a tree. The king runs past, shouting, “they’re here! They’re coming!”

John, sword out, and Dayona, shield in one hand, sword in the other, race up behind me. They pass towards the fallen Gargoyle. I rise. The king and I follow.

The Gargoyle shakingly pulls himself up against the tree, ripping the arrow from his shoulder, coughing and spiting blood. Both Dayona’s and John’s blades soon meet against his chest armor. He laughs.

“Wherefore do you laugh so?” the queen charges.

“You are soon dead!” the Gargoyle pronounces.

Leaves shake in canopy above. We all turn up to see at least three other Gargoyles diving from left, right toward us. Arrow to bowstring, thwish. Arrow to bowstring, thwish. Two arrows at two Gargoyles. My arrows miss. The Gargoyles separate and fly off.

A third Gargoyle with sword dives at us from behind me. I spin around. John swings his sword, clanging it against the creature’s chest armor. John dunks. The Gargoyle’s wings spread and push a wallop of air at us as the Gargoyle stops in mid-flight and backs upward.

A roar, then another. I turn around to see an ever-bear galloping toward us. A second ever-bear lunges onto the rising Gargoyle, claws out. The ever-bear and Gargoyle drop as the ever-bear tears its beak into the Gargoyle’s neck. Blood gushes.

Breathing heavily, still in shock, I back together with my three companions as we face a new foe. Four more ever-bears crawl up through the leaf-covered ground and surround us.

The Gargoyle at the tree flaps wings to rise as a bolt of green lightening streaks from somewhere nearby, hitting him, throwing him to the ground. We all turn to the source of the energy—Galidor with staff tip still lit walks up between two of the ever-bears and stops just before us.

John, Dayona, and the king point their swords at him. He tips his staff forward. “Lower your weapons,” Galidor speaks, “or I will light you on fire, and then have my ever-bears devour what is left.”

I throw my bow around shoulder. My companions lower their swords.

Galidor turns to the wounded Gargoyle on his back. “Kill him!” he orders. One of the ever-bears crawls up to the Gargoyle, slashing the Gargoyle’s face. The Gargoyle screams. The ever-bear stabs its beak into his neck and snaps bloodthirstily into his shoulders. “Pitiful creatures.”

“What is it you want?” Dayona asks.

“The same artifact you too are after. The Sword of Truth.”

“Thou cannot retrieve it. Thou shalt never have it.”

“But this Raider can retrieve it. And for me, he will.”

“And just why would I do that?” asks John.

Galidor smiles, causing the overbite of his snout to seem more pronounced. He points his staff at Dayona and a gust of light pours from it, surrounding her in a green mist. She freezes. John brings his sword to Galidor’s chest. “You will, or your… girlfriend will be bear feast.”

John lowers his sword. Galidor steps back, lowering his staff. Dayona remains unmoving, frozen in place, while a thin, green hue remains. “Bring her back.”

“I will let her from my spell when you return with the Sword.”

“We don’t know where it is.”

“I have a map. You will follow it, you will find it. Return the Sword to me, and your queen will be freed.”

Caught at the Core

John reluctantly agrees. Galidor’s Gackgackle servant, whom he calls Jangoo, reappears to help the wizard strap Dayona’s lifeless body onto the back of a large ever-bear. And now, led by the gruesome twosome, surrounded by ever-bears, we journey back through Core Wood to Galidor’s camp. We arrive late in the afternoon.

Going into his tent, Galidor disappears. “We’re not really going to help him,” asks the king softly to John, “are we?”

“Of course, I don’t want to,” answers John, “but what do you want me to do?”

“Just let me get a clean shot from behind,” I add. “Fire an arrow right into his neck.”

“Don’t think I can’t hear you plotting against me,” Galidor remarks as he reemerges, staff in one hand and map in the other. “Even if you think you can revive your friend without my help, you can’t fire an arrow from a broken bow.”

What did he say? Before I barely have time to grab the bow arm from around my shoulder, the wizard points his staff at me, chanting, “snap and crack, nathrack oiboothack!” A flash of light more, and the wooden handle splinters in two. I toss it to the ground.

“We were only joshing you, man,” says John. “I’ll get you the Sword.”

“I should hope so,” Galidor replies. “For the queen’s sake.”

“Now let’s see that map of yours,” insists the king.

Galidor hands him the map, and the king shows it to John and me. It pictures all lands of the Kretan Rahnat, surrounded by the Swamps, with Westmoor Castle in the west off the creek which feeds into Abbey Lake within Abbey Wood in the northeast. And at the edge of the woods, on the far side of the lake near the swamps, is the Messenger of Fire. “Okay. So, this Messenger of Fire is where we have to fight the main boss?” asks John. The king takes the map.

“I don’t know what you mean, Raider,” says Galidor. “Your speech is rather muddled.”

“The mother ever-bear. They told us at the castle that the Sword of Truth is guarded by some kind of monster bear.”

“That is legend. There is a guardian, but whatever it may be, it will let you, a Raider from the Land of the Dawn, pass.”

“Hey,” John half-chuckles, “let’s hope so, huh?”

“Now, you three have your map. Be off with you.”

“You’re in a real hurry to get rid of us, aren’t you?”

“For your sakes, you would be wise to make haste. There are Gargoyles now in these lands, and they seek you out. I can keep them at bay, but only for a time.”

“Thanks for taking care of that for us. You’re a real pal.” John leans forward to pat Galidor on the back.

The wizard jerks away, whipping the top of his staff at John’s chest. “Watch it, Raider!” he cries.

“Whoa!” retorts John, backing with hands raised.

“Let’s go!” the king declares.

“The king has spoken.”

Galidor plants his staff firmly into the soil, leering after us solemnly, as we turn to leave the clearing. Kalla opens his backpack, reaches in to pull out the large rusted compass. He holds it out and turns to the northeast, replacing it into his backpack. John and I follow, but only for a few more minutes until John stops us.

“Follow me,” he insists.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“Back to Galidor’s camp.”

“I knew it!” the king declares. “You weren’t going along with that traitor after all.”

“Nope. And I have a plan. Come on.” He circles to the right, and we follow.

Soon we arrive at the vine-covered ridge alongside the clearing, crouching on its far slope in the shade of the beech trees. “So, what’s this plan of yours?” I ask.

He scoots up to the top of the embankment. The king and I do the same on either side of him. We peer over the top to see Galidor dragging the queen into the tent. Jangoo stands nearby, beside a sitting ever-bear. “We steal his staff. See, he left it there.” The staff leans against the side of the tent.

“I don’t think that would be wise,” I comment.

“Why?”

“Well, even if we succeed, without getting eaten by those ever-bears of his, it wouldn’t do us any good. We can’t control it.”

“We don’t have to. All we need is use it to bring Dayona back.”

“Jed’s right,” asserts the king. “It won’t work. It seems to me, if we want to get Dayona freed, we have to get Galidor to do it.”

“What do you mean?”

“We need to think of a way to get Galidor to think he needs to release her. Then, once we figure that out, we can figure out how to kill him.”

“Now, that’s… That’s a plan.”

“Foolhardy as it is,” speaks a deep voice beside us.

John jerks up. Startled too, I spin to my side to see a human male also lying against the ridge. We all sit up. This Raider has long hair and a thick beard. He is tall and ruggedly dressed in animal skins and a linen shirt tied together in the front with strings and dropping below his belt almost as a tunic.

“Who the heck are you?” John asks.

“Forgive me for not introducing myself. I am Llyr, son of Niven, the wisest and most excellent of the woodsmen of the Kretan Rahnat.

“Great! We were wondering when you’d show up.”

“What about our plan?” asks the king.

“Oh, yes.” John ponders a moment. “Now, how are we going to get him to wake up Dayona?”

“That I don’t know.”

“We could tell him the knights of the Kretan Rahnat are coming, to attack or something, and he has to wake up the queen to order them to leave.”

“But why would she do that?”

“It doesn’t matter, because as soon as he lets her out of his spell, we get him.”

“I don’t think he will believe us,” I add.

“You three, as far as Galidor knows,” inserts Llyr, “are off to find the Sword. I should be the one to draw him out. I shall draw him away from his tent. I can convince him to release the queen from his spell, but I need you to kill him.”

“How are we going to do that?” the king asks.

“Something I’ve learned from the woodlands. To remain hidden, you must find a way to blend in. You, Raider, will bury yourself in the leaves behind the tent. When I draw him away, you three will tear down the tent and you, Raider…”

“Sir John,” John corrects him.

“John. You will bury yourself near the tent with sword and wait until just after he frees the queen. Swiftly, you will leap up, slash his staff in two, and stab him.”

“And how are you going to get him to wake up Dayona?”

“With the tent down, when I return with the wizard, I will find he queen’s body and say she is dead. And he will have to revive her to prove otherwise.”

“Like that’s going to work,” remarks the king.

“’Tis foolhardy, but it may all we can do. Your plan, after all.”

“That’s true.”

“Well, then, there’s no time to dawdle. As soon as we leave the clearing, as soon as the ever-bears retreat, you, John, must bury yourself, and you two Deforians, tear down the tent and come back here to hide.”

“We’re ready,” declares the king. “Now, be off with you!”

Llyr, for just a moment, stares across at the king’s stern countenance with a look of disgust. And for a moment I am sickened by him. Yet he smiles, returning to his composure of odorous gentleness. I watch him carefully as he crawls down the ridge, jumps up, and walks away along it.

“I don’t like him,” I assert, almost unknowingly. “There’s something about him I don’t like.”

“Yeah,” agrees John, “like his smell.”

“No. Like he’s not who he seems to be.”

“You’re right, Jed,” the king says. “but he’s our only ally. When the queen comes back to us, I’m sure she’ll ease our fears. For now, we stick to the plan.”

Not certain what the next step of our plan is going to be, not really sure we even had a plan, the king, John, and I once more peer over the ridge into the clearing. And we wait for Llyr to make his move. Galidor walks from the tent after grabbing his staff and speaks to Jangoo. Jangoo runs off across the clearing.

Llyr soon appears opposite us from the shade of the beech trees. Two sitting ever-bears stand, growling. Galidor walks between them, leaning on his staff with each step, patting one of the beasts as he passes. “Who goes there?” Galidor demands.

“Good day to you,” Llyr responds. “You are the one they call Galidor?”

“I am, but who are you that you should know?”

“I am Llyr, chief of the queen’s woodsmen. Whether you have a right to be in these lands is not for me to say. I am simply a caretaker. But the reason I come to you is to ask you of the queen herself.”

“What of her?”

“She has gone missing. Her knights are on alert and search for her even now.”

“I know nothing of her whereabouts. So be off with you.”

“But her three companions, two Deforians and one Raider from the Land of the Dawn, have been captured by the Gargoyles.”

“What?! That’s not possible.”

“I have just seen them—at the Gargoyles’ camp not far from here.”

“You will show me this camp.”

“Come.” Llyr leads Galidor from the clearing. The ever-bears follow after them.

“Let’s go,” John insists, leaping up and running down the other side of the ridge toward the tent. The king and I follow.

While John examines the ground behind the tent, shifting the layer of leaves around with his foot, the king and I draw our swords and slash them across the tent. I grab a portion of it and tear the fabric from the wooden supports. Dayona’s body lies back on the ground against a large sack full of supplies. The king walks up to her, lowering and studying her frozen form.

“Hey, guys,” John calls, squatting and shoveling leaves and dirt away with his hands. “Get over here and help dig a hole for me.”

The king and I sheath our swords and hurry to help John. In only a few minutes we three make enough of a crevice for John to lie sideways inside. Removing his sword, he lowers into the cavity. “Hurry! Cover me up! Cover me up!”

“I don’t think this is going to work, Sire,” I suggest, throwing leaves and dirt over John.

“I’m going to need a bath,” says John.

“Too late to worry about it now,” the king replies to me.

Soon John’s form is hidden under a layer of soiled leaves, though now there is a lump. Contemplating its obviousness, I am startled by a shriek overhead. I turn up to see four armed Gargoyles fly in formation over the clearing toward the direction Llyr went. The king and I freeze.

“This is bad,” I comment.

“Stick to the plan,” says the king. “We stick to the plan.” He leaps up and hurries back across the ridge. I go after him.

Behind the embankment we lower and peer over the top just as Jangoo comes into the clearing. He stops as he notices the ripped down tent, chirps and squeals loudly, jumping up and down. He turns around as Galidor comes into view.

“Who is there?!” Galidor shouts, pointing his staff before him. “Show yourselves!” Three ever-bears move around him.

Llyr approaches from behind, stopping as he seems to show shock, staring ahead at the queen’s body. “The queen! She’s dead!”

“She is not dead. She only sleeps.” Galidor faces Llyr’s stern look, now limping toward the remains of the tent. “I’ll show you.”

The wizard touches the end of his staff to Dayona—a yellow glow begins at it and flows out to surround the queen’s body. She gasps and sits up, blinking and opening her eyes as if waking from a terrible nightmare. Galidor takes one step backward toward the mound of leaves, planting his staff in the ground.

John rises, leaves and dirt spray. Galidor turns. John roars—sword slashes, snapping staff in two. Galidor stumbles but catches balance, gaping at his attacker. Swinging the sword back around in a wide arc, John steps forward, towering over the old Deforian.

“John!” Dayona calls to him, pushing herself up.

John goes to her with hand extended. “My lady,” he says. “My queen.” She takes his hand, and he pulls her to her feet. He embraces her quickly with his sword free arm, and now the king and I, swords ready, rise to hurry down to our companions.

Llyr approaches. Ever-bears roar, but they seem bewildered and do not move. “Kill him!” Llyr commands us. “Kill the ground feeder!”

The weakened wizard cowers, breathing heavily, glaring with fear at John. “He has no power now.” John sheaths his sword.

Llyr’s glance meets the queen’s compassionate gaze, his darkened expression fading. He snuffs and walks away along the ridge. “Then let us leave him to his fate.”

“Come,” the queen says and follows him. John, the king, and I go after her. As we leave the clearing, I turn back toward Galidor, the ever-bears growling and circling around him, and wonder how cruel of a fate will be his.

Embracing the Hero

On foot now, the five of us leave the confines of Core Wood and head northeastward into open country. Plentiful sunlight, vast fields of green, serenity abounding. No Gargoyles. Dayona has wrapped a cloth over her head as a hood so not to draw attention to herself as we pass within a few miles of the town of East Point. Here, south of the creek, not many travel, yet sometime before noon, we face an encounter of sorts.

A party of three ruggedly dressed male humans on horseback appear out of the north and stop to watch us pass at a distance. From here I can’t get a good look at them, but from their disheveled appearance and quiet eyeballing, I suspect trouble. We all notice them, yet say nothing and continue unheeded.

“Ye, there!” the leader of the bunch, a man with long hair and dented, metal helmet calls.

I turn to the king—he shakes his head. We continue.

The leader guides his horse forward. “I say, ye, there!”

“This doesn’t look good,” comments John.

“Just keep your head down and ignore them,” Llyr suggests. “These bandits are just trying to intimidate us. We outnumber them.”

“But you don’t have a weapon.”

“I don’t need one.”

“Did you say, bandits?” I ask.

“How can you tell?” asks the king.

“I know,” replies Llyr.

The three bandits watch us from a distance for a moment more, and now walk their horses toward us, slowly catching up with us. “Howdy,” John says.

They prance their horses alongside us, even as we pick up our pace. “Whurr ye five miserable blokes ‘eaded?”

“Just taking a walk. Nice day for a walk, don’t you think?”

The clump-clump of the bandits’ horses invade my thoughts. “Know what? I think ye are up’t summit.”

“Nope. Just enjoying the weather.”

The leader jerks his reigns and circles his horse quickly in front of Llyr and John, blocking us. We stare at him. He glares back. I turn up to another of the bandits beside me—he turns down from his horse in a leering smile.

“We are patrolin this area in the queen’s name,” the leader begins, “and ye are strangers to this land.” His horse snorts. He draws back the reigns, and his horse prances in place.

“This one ‘ere ‘as a look of one of them woodsmen,” a third bandit speaks, glaring at Llyr. “But these others—” He catches a good look at Dayona, tilting his head and leaning forward. “Be that a young lass?”

Dayona tilts her head toward him. He smiles mischievously.

“Now lay down yer arms,” the leader orders.

John turns to Llyr, Llyr takes a deep breath, and quickly the leader dismounts. I turn, but am shoved to the ground by one of the other bandits. I grab the hilt of my sword. The king is knocked down by the second.

With my face pressed into the grass, I manage to peek up to see the leader blocking Llyr’s fist and throwing him to the ground. The bandit draws his rusted blade.

John, surprised and unawares, pauses and now reaches for his sword just as the queen leaps at the leader with sword out, clashes his swinging blade with hers. With a twist of her sword about his, he loses grip and is disarmed.

She runs up to the bandit holding me down. He stands, attempting to block her attack with his sword, but is slashed in the arm—blood shoots out. He grabs his wound and staggers back as I rise.

The third bandit, stunned at the scene, leaves the king. He mounts his horse and rides off. The leader does the same, and the two gallop away to the north.

The queen sheaths her sword, drawing back her hood. I help the king to his feet. “Are you hurt, Sire?” I ask

“Sore, but I’ll manage,” he replies. “That was some swordsmanship there, Your Majesty,” he complements the queen.

“We thank you,” she answers with a smile, “Your Majesty.”

“You don’t need a weapon, you say?” John jeers as he approaches Llyr.

“I was… caught off guard,” says Llyr.

The wounded bandit cries in pain, scoots back in the grass, his arm bleeding. His horse prances in place. “What are we going to do about him?” I ask. The king and I walk over to him, followed by Dayona.

“I’ll show you what,” says Llyr with a smile. He holds his palm toward John’s sword. John draws his sword and hands it over.

Llyr walks between the queen and me with sword to hover over our foe. The bandit stares up and shakes.

Llyr screams and thrusts John’s sword into his neck. More blood, the bandit killed. The bandit’s horse gallops away.

After wiping both sides of the blade against his animal-skin pants, cleaning the blood off, Llyr hands it back to John, who sheathes it. “And what of you?” asks Llyr of John. “Aren’t ye a knight? Sir John.” He smiles sarcastically and walks away. “Let’s move. No time to waste!”

The king and I straighten our clothes and supplies. John holds his forehead. The queen steps up to him. “Llyr’s right,” John says. “I should have done something. I should’ve protected you. I’m not much of a knight.”

“Somewhere inside thee is a hero. When thou find that hero, with thy courage and strength, I know thou shalt be a great knight.” She pats his back, and now hurries after Llyr. John, the king, and I follow.

“What did you mean, before, when you said I could find a hero inside me?” John asks Dayona, who walks beside him. Llyr quietly strolls ahead of them, the king and I behind.

“Inside every knight, there is a hero,” she answers.

“I want to be a hero. I wish I was your hero.”

“Thou art, Sir John. Thou art a hero. Not many would seek out the Sword of Truth, not many would dare sit upon the mound, not many would stand up to a wizard to save his lady. Thou art a hero, now thou must embrace it.”

“How do I do that?”

“Every one of our knights has gone on a quest, a knight’s quest, to the Plains of Solitude, to find his hero and become that hero. Each knight journeys alone, with no food or water, often times for days. Some never return.”

“But how do I find something that’s inside me, by going on a quest? I mean, isn’t it always there?”

“The world out there is like mirror to what is inside thee. Thou cannot peer inside, so thou must look upon its image, out there. I know this, because I too have gone on this quest.”

“So, I’ll have, like, a vision?”

“Thy words are acclumsid, Sir John. But thou do find thyself, or thou shalt die.”

“Bummer.”

We continue trudging along, the sun lowering in the west behind us. Turning down from Dayona and John ahead of me, I glance across at the king. “I want to be a hero,” I say in jest.

“You’re my hero!” the king responds, and we laugh.

A day has passed, and another soon comes to a close. We pass north of a peaceful yet desolate landscape called the Plains of Solitude—only a dozen or so penses away from the creek’s bank, stretching off to the southern horizon, lies a craggy, lifeless plain. The veil of night covers the land. But we ourselves are like trees in the dead of winter, with no protection from our flying foes. Hence, when we camp, we decide to make it a short respite, regardless of how tired we all feel. Each of us will take watch while the others sleep, one after the other, until all will have had a turn, and then we will continue our slog until at least sunrise when we will take rest once more. The four of us stand about in intense idleness. “I will take the first watch,” I offer as I sit.

John slumbers down. “Then I’m going to sleep,” he says. Lying onto his side, he looks up at the queen. “You’re not tired?”

“Not yet,” she says. “Llyr and I have a few things to discuss first.”

“As you wish. Good night all.” He shuts his eyes.

The king sits down next to me as the queen goes to Llyr and leads him away from the rest of us. “I wonder what that’s about.”

“She probably senses something about him,” I suggest. “Like I did.”

Dayona and Llyr stop several penses away and talk of something we can’t hear. “Those Gargoyles you passed overhead at Galidor’s camp,” I speak, nearly to myself in thought, “how did they not spot Llyr with Galidor?”

“The tree cover was dense,” the king explains, “wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know.”

“And maybe if they did see them, they didn’t feel strong enough to attack them with the ever-bears around. There were only four of them, and Astoria did say they’re really cowards at heart.”

“Those Gargoyles who attacked us at Silver Stone Meadow… There were only three.”

“But there weren’t ever-bears. When Galidor showed up with them, they retreated.”

“I suppose you’re right. But there’s just something that feels wrong about him, but I can’t figure it out.”

The king sighs. “We need to be hopeful and keep spirited. Look at what’s going our way. We met our guide who can take us to the Sword while avoiding any more ever-bear attacks.”

“I trust your judgement, Sire. But I still cannot trust this Raider of the woods.”

The queen and Llyr return. Llyr removes the waterskin from John, sleeping soundly now, takes the queen’s and comes to us for our own. He now walks away solemnly toward the creek, which lies some distance away. “I suspect something,” Dayona speaks softly down to us.

“I told you so,” I say to the king.

“What is it?” asks the king.

“Llyr tells me that he came upon our herald on his way back to Westmoor from East Point, but it does not seem possible for him to do so, go to Silver Stone Meadow, and reach you three when he did. And it does not seem like him to come close to East Point, or any other settlement, in his journeys.”

“But what does all that mean?”

“It means I am worried like never in my life.”

“Is it not really Llyr? Is it not him?”

“No. ‘Tis Llyr. But I’ve never felt uneasy like this around him before.”

“What should we do?” I ask.

“Nothing we can do now. We shall get thou three to the Sword. I think we should allow Llyr to guide us on our quest as if we have no fears. Do not let him know we had this talk, that we suspect something. But we must keep a careful eye on him. I don’t trust him, and I don’t know why.”

Llyr soon returns with our waterskins filled—we take them. “Say, Llyr,” the king starts unexpectedly. “How was it you found us as soon as you did? When if you got word of us from the queen’s herald, you would not have had time to reach Silver Stone Meadow for at least a day more?”

Dayona casts a stern glance at the king. Llyr seems suddenly muddled in thought. “I didn’t go all the way to the Meadow. I tracked Galidor to his camp, and came upon you Deforians and the Raider with ease. Of all the creatures of the wood, time is the most elusive.”

“Very well, then. Let’s all get to sleep while we can. Jed, I’ll take second watch.” The king lies down.

“Agreed,” adds Llyr, while he and Dayona lower to the ground.

Lost in the Plains of Solitude

I wake. Dawn has come as the others sleep. What of our plan for the night? Did someone taking the last watch fall asleep? I lurch up.

The king sleeps beside me, Dayona nearby. But John, Llyr? Nowhere. But John’s supplies… left behind—even his sword lies abandoned.

“Your Majesty!” I scream, leaping to my feet. “Your Majesty!!”

The king and Dayona wake. “What?” he asks. “Morning already?”

“What is it?” she questions.

“John, Llyr!” I shout. “They’re missing!”

The king and Dayona stand. We all look about the area as Llyr approaches from behind me, holding a slice of bread. “Your so-called friend has deserted us,” he says.

“No,” says Dayona in disbelief.

“You’re lying,” I say. “You are a liar!”

“John would never desert us.”

“Then, where is he?” Llyr asks jeeringly. “He took last watch. When I awoke, he was gone.”

I charge up to Llyr, staring up at his stern, uncaring countenance. “You did something to him! You did something!”

“Me?” he questions almost sarcastically, biting into his bread as if all is well.

“What did you do?” inquires the king.

“As I said,” Llyr repeats, “when I woke, he was gone.”

“He has gone on a knight’s quest, to the south, into the Plains of Solitude,” the queen realizes, turning to stare off into that vast barren terrain.

“A knight’s quest!” huffs Llyr.

Dayona sighs. “To become a hero, a true knight of the realm.”

“We don’t have time for this dribble! Grab our things. We must be on our way at once!”

The king follows the queen’s southerly stare. “If he’s really gone out there, we have to find him. He didn’t take his sword, his waterskin! He won’t survive on his own.”

“He is so brave,” Dayona ponders.

Llyr growls, throwing the rest of his breakfast to his feet. “He has made his choice. He has abandoned us, so we abandon him. Let’s move!”

The queen spins around to face up to Llyr. Even though he towers her in height, her resoluteness easily shrinks his strength in comparison. “I am thy queen! And I make the commandments!”

“Of course,” he bows pompously with arm to his chest, “Your Majesty!”

“Anyway, wherefore are thou so eager for the Sword?”

“For the Sword? Nay. The Sword of Truth can remain hidden for all I care. I do care, however, that there are Gargoyles out there, and we are in open country.”

The queen calms and looks northeastward. She sighs. “What say thou?”

The king and I watch her, nervously waiting for a response. “We shall search for Sir John.”

I smile and grab my supplies.

“Very well.”

“We have no quest without him. Only he can retrieve the Sword.”

We have traveled for hours, spreading out and searching in different directions. We call upon his name. Once we were out of sight of each other, we circled back and met again at our campsite. No sign of John. Now, the queen leads us directly southward to search a lowland area she remembers. Following her unsteadily for a while, we walk down into a canyon-like trench with rocky, sandy walls no more than a few penses deep, but sunken enough that someone down here may not be seen from afar.

We call out, “John! John!” but receive no answer. We come upon a shallow cave, though after examining it, we find nothing. We tread south until the trench meets its end, and turn around to return to the cave entrance.

“We’re wasting our time,” Llyr sneers. “He has far too much lead on us if he is still walking. And if he is hiding, then he will not be found.”

“What if he is injured?” the kind asks. “And what if he’s too weak to go on.”

“And why hasn’t he answered our calls?”

“What if he can’t speak?”

“And what if he is dead,” Llyr snaps. The rest of us stop in our tracks.

“He’s like a brother to me,” he king begins unsteadily. “He’s like a brother, and I won’t give up on him!”

I put an arm about the king’s shoulders to comfort him. “We won’t, Sire. If it all ends, we won’t.”

A laugh rises in the air. I look up behind me to the top of the trench wall, where John sits, jeering down at us. “You fellows,” he begins, “Jed. Kalla… You guys really do care about me!”

“What is the meaning of this?!” shouts Llyr.

The queen looks at him, her emotions a mess—fear, to anger, now fading to a smile.

John sighs. “I was going to go on a knight’s quest, you know, to figure things out. But then I realized, I am on a quest. I am on a knight’s quest already.” He jumps down, looking bright and wholesome. “You guys are like family to me, and any quest I go on, I want you to be there.”

“You are my brother,” the king says.

“A brother from another mother?” asks John lightly.

The king smiles awkwardly. “Yeah,” he says, chuckling, “from another mother.”

“Now let’s get out of here and not waste any more time.” John walks north out of the trench, passing Llyr and slapping his shoulders. “Llyr, you’re not bad yourself. A little word of advice, though. Take a chill pill. You don’t need to be so tough and edgy all the time, man.”

Llyr stares at him almost hatefully. John studies his glance for a moment, pats him on the back, and walks off. We all follow him.

Arthur’s Keep

Within a long day’s travel, we reach the ancient oak trees of Abbey Wood forest, and half a day more, we reach Arthur’s Keep. This legendary keep, which tradition has it houses the remains of King Arthur, stands as a lone tower of stone, rising just to the tree tops, crumbling in part and thick with moss on its northern face. While one great oak, the roots of which curl out of the ground along its wall, grows tilted off its corner’s facing us, the rest of the structure is in clear view of the surrounding trees.

Because of John’s fascination with it, we approach the lonely arched doorway into the shadowy interior of the ominous keep. As we enter the forward chamber, a hint of an odor of mold or rotten meat meets us. A wide, winding staircase rises on our left up out of view, and Llyr explains the reasoning of designing staircases winding in a clockwise direction—it is so defenders of the keep or castle can easily swing their swords right-handed coming down, but attackers rising the stairs would have difficulty swinging without hitting stone. The king is curious to explore the upper levels, while John simply wants to proceed to view King Arthur’s tomb. We have little time to waste, and Llyr is right to pressure us to not tarry.

“You go look at this guy’s body—” the king starts.

“King Arthur,” interrupts John. “It’s King Arthur, man. The famous King Arthur, who defeated Morgana and all that mess.”

“Well, I’m going upstairs. Who knows what I can find?”

“Any treasures have been looted by now,” leads Llyr. “You won’t find much more than stone.”

“And I might find a secret door.”

“That you may. There are no dangers here. So, be off with you, and hurry back.”

“Fine. Jed? You coming?”

“I think I’d like to see this tomb first,” I say.

“As you wish. Bye.”

And as the king disappears up the stone steps, the rest of us proceed ahead through an archway into the inner chamber. The walls of the room rise three floors to the stone ceiling, lit by three windows above us. In the middle on the floor is a large, stone sarcophagus, the somewhat curved lid of which has been slid to the side so that the corners are uncovered. Etched across its surface are spiral swirls, seemingly made by one continuous, unending line. Behind it is a wall curved from corner to corner, rising not much farther than the sarcophagus itself, upon which is carved out a scene of warriors in battling what appears to be giants. And standing in the center of this is a large stone cross with equal-length arms, one half chipped off, intricately carved with images of swirling vines, all encompassed in a stone circle. A few large, broken, dusty vases lie on the floor nearby.

I follow John up to the sarcophagus and can sense his awe and amazement. He looks inside at one of the exposed corners, and I peer around him. Within it, not much more than dust and chips of rock or maybe bone can be seen. “Where’s his body?”

“He was laid to rest here perhaps fifteen hundred years ago, perhaps more,” Llyr explains. “The woodsmen of the Kretan Rahnat have always known the keep to have been disturbed, but because of its sacredness to us, even we have not tried to re-seal the sarcophagus. Whatever bones were once inside have turned to dust.”

“Oh, man. That sucks.”

Flap. Flap. With the noise of snapping leather, we turn around to see a Gargoyle appear outside the archway and step underneath, gasping in shock at finding us within.

“Stay where you are!” the winged beast boldly orders.

Dayona charges toward our unexpected foe, who stands firm. John hurries around her through the archway, blade out behind the Gargoyle. The Gargoyle lowers his sword. “If you try to enter this chamber,” the queen commands, “you will be killed!”

I approach with my sword out to look up at the rough, reptilian features of the Gargoyle. “Where do you come from?” I ask.

“Speak,” adds Dayona. “Are there others?”

“The others are not far,” the Gargoyle hisses. “If I do not return, they will reach this place in no time. You would be wise to let me go!”

“How do we know you speak the truth?”

“You can’t. But will you take the chance?” The dark creature’s eyes beam into hers, causing her to shutter.

“It’s no good taking him prisoner, and one less Gargoyle won’t matter to anyone. He’s lying about the others.”

“That is what my heart tells me,” Dayona says, “but my mind is not made up.”

“He should be made to tell us all he knows of the Gargoyles’ plans,” I suggest. “There is some hidden scheme. Because, why have we not seen even one Gargoyle for days of open country? Why was he surprised to find us here? If we are being tracked, why have they not attacked?”

“All very pressing questions which need answering.” Dayona presses her sword against the Gargoyle’s neck. The beast nervously twitches, turning from Dayona to share a cold stare with Llyr. The Gargoyle drops his sword—it ringing out against the stone floor.

“Your time is running out,” the Gargoyle bellows.

“We shall see about that.” Dayona keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the enemy. “Jed, go and find Kalla. I don’t like us being split up.”

By the Krevetat! I’ve forgotten all about the king! I sheath my sword, and keeping a watchful eye on the winged beast, I pass around him through the archway for the stairs.

The stairway rotates upward one turn and arrives at another room. The only illumination being the faint light which rises from the stairwell and a shaft of sunlight through an archway on the other side. I leave the room, shouting, “Your Majesty! Your Majesty!”

“Over here, Jed!” the king calls back from a third room on the side as I pass into the second, lit by one window. Nothing but dust, crumbled rocks, and twigs from the tree branches outside. I continue through another doorway to find the king peering out a window. “I thought I saw something out there,” he says. “Maybe Gargoyles.”

“There’s a Gargoyle downstairs. We’ve taken him captive.”

“Really? Let’s go!

The king barely acknowledges me, hurrying from the window. I follow him out of the room, and we soon climb down the stairs. John stands with sword at the Gargoyle’s back in the archway.

Snap. The king knocks a pebble off the last step. John spins around. The Gargoyle turns, flips out wings, one against John—John squats, raising arm, the wing swiping overhead.

John raises sword, blade nicking the edge of a wing. The Gargoyle folds wings, runs out the door—wings unfold, flap, and push the Gargoyle up into the air outside.

Dayona races through the archway, sheathing her sword. John stands, rubbing his head. “Are you hurt?” she asks.

“Nope,” John says, “just, like… what the heck happened?”

Llyr approaches, picking up the Gargoyle’s sword. Dayona counters him. “Give me the sword,” she commands.

Llyr flips the sword upside down, as if ready to sheath it at his side, grip strengthening. John reaches for the hilt of his own sword and steps forward.

“Thou shalt give it to thy queen,” she commands once more.

“I have no need of a blade,” Llyr says, handing her the hilt.

She takes the sword in her free hand. “Sir John,” she says, turning to face John. She waves in a circle for him to turn—he does, and she slips the Gargoyle’s sword underneath the leather strap along his back from his shoulder. He turns around in a smile.

John steps back, draws his sheathed sword with his right hand, and with left, swings the sword on his back around front. He plays at swinging the two swords at different opponents. “Now I’m twice the menace.”

He sheathes his sword at waist and slips the other down his back. The queen smiles. “We depart,” she says.

“Ready or not,” he says. “Here we go again.”

The queen leaves, followed by John. The king and I turn back to Llyr, whose expression remains course and unclear, and follow the others. Llyr leaves the keep last.

The second night after traveling though Abbey Wood to the east-southeast, and around the southern tip of Abbey Lake northward, we make camp in the trees just off the lakeside. This night is calm with mild winds, rippling off the water’s surface. The far side of the lake cannot be seen, but farther along the north and west, its distant tree-covered shores can be discerned. The only noises, and they are plentiful, are the chirping of insects. A sudden breeze rustles leaves, creaking boughs.

The hooting of an owl is heard.

We sit together off a mound of rock beneath the shade of a great oak. We are all tired, but still too watchful and aware to find sleep forthcoming. “Two more days travel,” Llyr begins, “and we shall arrive at the Messenger of Fire.”

“What will we find there?” asks the king.

“A fortress like many others. But inside it, only legend knows. There ought to be a guardian, of the likes of a great bear, keeping those who are unworthy from entering the inner chamber.”

“The Mother Bear,” states John. “The main boss.”

“It can’t be a real bear, can it?” asks the king. “I mean, how is it still alive after all this time?”

“By magic,” explains Llyr.

“Real or not,” the queen adds, “magic there certainly is. ‘Tis said that Alban Arthan, the Light of Arthur, burns for those who are untrue. ‘Tis said we must beware the Light of Arthur.”

“Hey,” mentions John. “Back at the castle, during that tournament, you said that Alban thing was when the annual Gauntlet was going to be.”

“Alban Arthan,” she corrects him. “It means both the Light of Arthur and the Light of Winter. At the start of winter, with its darkness and cold, we celebrate that light.”

“Kind of like Christmas.”

“We call it Yuletide.”

“Yeah. On Earth, we call it that too.”

“What happens if someone unworthy tries to get past?” the king asks. “Are they killed?”

“No,” tells Dayona. “The Light of Arthur prevents those who carry wrong thoughts from entering the inner chamber by some sort of transformation. I don’t know if this is symbolic, or what is true about it. We must pay careful watch to what we do and say just the same.”

The Messenger of Fire

Almost two days later, we arrive at what should be our journey’s end… Llyr, who has become a far better companion and guide through these foreign lands than we first thought, suddenly finds himself at once incoherent and lost. I nearly forgave him for all his shortcomings and strangeness, but now his worth as a guide is questioned again since our destination alludes us. All four of us split up in search of any sign of the fortress through the trees.

Llyr thinks us lost, blaming the confusion on a mysteriously changing landscape, which sounds convincing except that many of these ancient oaks have clearly been at root for hundreds of years. We even begin to lose all hope when Llyr spots something up ahead. “’Tis just ahead of us,” he declares. “I think I can make out a section of its wall.”

Making haste, it takes almost no time at all for us to reach it. Soon we stand before a large wall, maybe to a height of Arthur’s Keep, appearing to be made up of solid rock. No edges, no grooves—just apparently one enormous, single slab of stone. It extends as far as can be seen through the trees to the left and right. The king seems aggravated at it and approaches the barrier. He looks upward and along it. “How are we going to get past?” he ponders.

“If I am right,” Llyr says, “the gateway cannot be that far off. We must move along the wall until we reach it.”

“But which way?”

“We will try one, and then the other.”

“This seems eerily familiar,” John says. “You don’t think those Tralks are behind this, do you?”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just find a way to go over it?” the king asks.

“I’ll go fetch some heavy vines or something,” John agrees. He walks off.

“No, wait!” Llyr calls. John stops. “There is no way you are going to get over this barrier. Give us some time… before you go and do something rash.”

The king seems so disappointed at this, huffing and stomping his foot. The queen comes up to him. “I’ll tell you what—if we don’t come across it soon, we shall consider climbing the wall.” The king smiles and joins the rest of us as we move left along the wall.

It takes us some time before we see signs of anything hopeful. The king indicates very clearly, he does not like the queen’s idea of “soon,” and keeps insisting that maybe the gate doesn’t even exist. All in all, though, we soon come upon a large stone structure built into the wall, a gate house rising slightly higher than the barrier itself. A large stone door stands in its center with no visible way of getting it open. No handles, no indentations of any kind. Llyr approaches to get a closer look, feeling up and down along its edge. “This may take a while,” he says.

“See!” declares the king. “I told you, going over the wall would be easiest!”

“Now, let’s not be hasty,” replies Llyr, pressing his fingers into the deep crevice along one side, “lest any more foolish ideas enter our little heads.

“Let’s not be hasty? I—”

“I have it!” Llyr exclaims, making a strong jerk with his fingers upward, digging deep into the slit. In a deep rumble, the giant stone slab slips forward, and now swings open somewhat. Llyr grunts as he attempts to push it outward with all his strength. A rush of stagnant, dusty air whisks outward through the crack. John rushes over to help force it open enough for us to enter.

“If I don’t get to go over the wall,” the king insists, “I’m going to go in first!” And with that, he charges proudly through the dark opening. One by one we follow. The door remains open.

We pass through a wide antechamber into a gigantic room. The atmosphere is dank and oppressive to the senses, as if filled with mildew or tiny spores, and the great space is no smaller than a hundred penses on either side. Like a cave deep underground, it is dark and cold, the only illumination being the fleeting sunlight seeping through the gap in the stone entrance behind us. Looking up, it seems that the walls climb to heights higher than the surrounding wall. The corners of the room and side walls are hidden from the sun, and much of the back wall is cast in shadow. There, ahead of us, looking down at us, stands a menacingly colossal stone statue of a bear with claws extended, standing on its hind legs—not an ever-bear, not having a bird-like head with beak, but a beastly snout with fangs.

The Raiders stop just within the room, but I continue forward, followed by the king, toward the statue. Approaching it, I look up at its life-like appearance, wondering somehow if it may yet come to life, and, as John once suggested, attack us in some kind of final battle.

“What’s in there?!” calls John.

“A statue,” I shout, not turning, “of a bear!”

“Really?” He steps slowly toward us, accompanied by Dayona and Llyr. They seem hesitant, continually looking about, placing each foot carefully upon the ground, as if blind. “Wish I still had my flashlight.”

The rest reach the king and I, and we together look up at the frozen face of the stone bear. Its teeth, its cold stare, frightening. Minutes we stand motionless. Complete silence overtakes us, a quiet so brazen even John’s last words still seem to echo in my ear, shouting out like trumpets in the night.

“Damn!” Llyr exclaims. “Nothing! What surprises do the ancients have for us now?”

Looking up, I catch the light of gloom in Llyr’s eyes. Contrasting it, a shimmer of illumination from farther above falls on my eye, draws my attention. The shadowed eyes of the great bear flicker in a mysterious green light, and now suddenly come to life with vibrant energy. “Watch out!” I shout instinctively. “The Light of Arthur! Get away from Llyr!”

A burst of fire, a fountain of light and heat, spews forth from the statue’s eyes. Llyr jumps away as fiery, vibrant fingers grab me, hold me.

Surrounded by bright light, magical, green flames, I am forced onto my hands. It stretches me, pulls me. My arms, they seem longer… or my legs shorter. My heart beats erratically.

The darkness returns. An eerie quiet follows as my companions gather around me in awe. Somehow, I can’t stand. Somehow… I grew? I now look across at John and Dayona, no longer from below. What has happened? Why do I feel so… so different? I look down at what should be my hands on the ground, only to see… hooves? By the Krevetat, I’ve been transformed! Into a horse, of all things! My clothes and supplies lie piled and torn below me.

I try to speak, to call on my companions, only to have an incessant neighing belch from my mouth. I bob my head up and down, snorting in disgust.

“The Light of Arthur,” the queen starts, coming up to me. “’Twas not just a fable after all.” She runs her fingers gently down my mane. I want to holler, but it does feel pleasant. “I sort of like him as a horse. He is most lovely.”

Most lovely?! I prance up and down, neighing furiously at the idea of it. She jerks away, startled. Upon seeing her, I calm myself.

She approaches me again, whispering in my ear, “’twas only a jest.”

“We must search for another way out of here,” Llyr insists. “A secret door perhaps.”

“We can’t just leave him like that forever!” cries John.

“This has gone far enough!” he king proclaims, stepping up to Llyr. “I don’t care who you are, but I command you to leave! At once!”

“And what right do you have to give me an order?!” retorts Llyr.

“You are not a member of this party. I am the king around here, and that gives me every right to command a commoner like yourself!”

“A commoner, is it?!” Llyr shoves the king backward onto the ground. John draws the sword from his waist and the one from his back. I step up to block Llyr, just as he looms over His Majesty. “You would have such a loathsome creature speak like that, my queen?”

“I would have him speak his mind,” Dayona responds. “And I would have thee temper thy thoughts!”

Llyr growls under his breath, looking to John, who holds his blades before him. “I would watch what you say from now on, sir,” suggests John.

“I pray thee, John, let’s not multiply an already tense situation.”

“But didn’t you see? The ray that hit Jed was really meant for Llyr!”

“The queen’s right, John,” the king says. “For now, we have to work together to complete this quest. Like Llyr said, we need to find the other way out of here.”

“The Sword of Truth should be able to transform him back,” explains Dayona.

John sheathes both swords. “Then let’s find it,” he says.

“It seems to me,” Llyr speaks, “if any would care to listen, that the door must be hidden by the bear.”

“We can’t really move it,” says John.

“There might be a trap door,” suggests the king

“We have a lot of experience with those, don’t we?”

Thus, my companions’ frantic search begins for a hidden something around, below, or behind the giant statue. In my current condition, I can’t do much but watch the Raiders stumbling around to feel the base of the statue. Humans can’t see that well sometimes, and my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so only the king can truly examine the area.

I prance up to the statue. At its base near the floor, I notice a circular indention around a stone which appears loosely connected to the rock face. I walk up to the statue, not really able to get a closer look at it beneath me. I may have found something, but how do I tell the others? Hmm…

I’m just going to have to do this myself. Now, let’s see here… I’m going to have to kick it, but how? These things are a little more difficult than someone could realize if you’re not a horse. I have hooves, after all.

Well, I lift my front legs, one before the other, bending my knees, getting a feel for it. When I try kicking, though, my feet seem to want to poke backward. So, I guess I’m going to have to use my back legs to do this.

I turn about, flexing my back legs, bending them and pushing outward. I don’t know if I’m going to hit it in the right spot, but here it goes…

Kick! My hoof hits rock. The statue rumbles and shakes. I prance away from it and turn back. My other companions step away from the great bear as it slides sideways along the wall in a rumble. It stops in a jerk. Behind it, a black opening—a tunnel.

“Way to go, Jed!” cheers John.

I neigh and prance proudly in response.

John and Llyr walk up to the tunnel’s entrance, gawking. “I can’t see a damn thing!” John declares.

The king and Dayona approach the others. “We need a torch,” she says. “Something to light. Can you see anything?”

“No,” admits the king. “Nothing.”

Everybody else appears reluctant, so it looks like I’m going to have to take charge here. I prance up to them, neighing and bumping my head between them. They part to either side of me, and without a second thought, I gallop ahead down the cold, stagnant tunnel, sloping downward.

“Buddy!” John yells after me. “Where you going? Wait up!”

I slow when I hear them hurrying up behind me, but I do not turn, continuing forward along the straight passage, which is barely large enough for me to move without bumping my head. Still nothing in front as far as I can see.

Soon the others catch up with me, and the five of us move steadily along until a hint of sunlight is apparent from far ahead. Our pace quickens. Eventually we reach the opening into a cavern chamber from where the light originates. Stepping into it, we stop as we glance upon the legendary Sword of Truth.

The cavern is not exceedingly large, although there is no ceiling, only a shaft rising a great many penses upward to an opening, though which the blue hues of daylight form a column of illumination in the dusty, stagnant atmosphere, cast down upon one perfectly shaped stone cube at the room’s center. Upon the stone cube sits a richly-colored rock, nearly spherical, in which is imbedded a large, clean sword, seemingly gleaming in its own light. Its blade shows no rust, decay, or blemish, almost half-way stuck in the rock, and its simple, golden-hued hilt is elongated and reflects nearly all the falling light.

Though most of us stand in awe, Llyr steps ahead of us confidently until he is completely under the beam from above. He circles the stone pedestal until we can see his expression—staring at the sword, his eyes seem to glimmer a selfish desire to take hold of the golden hilt. “The Sword!” he softly announces in an unnaturally deep voice.

The queen approaches the skulkingly cleaver woodsman and steps between Llyr and the Sword, blocking it from his view, proudly confident in her stance. “The Sword Kretna reveals the wielder’s true nature,” she tells him. “Me thinks thou shalt be the one to lift it from its resting place.” She meets Llyr’s cold stare, unheeded. “That is, if thou wish to prove to us that thou art indeed whom thou seemest to be.” Keeping a watchful eye upon him, she steps aside

The rest of us remain perfectly still. I prance in place. John holds an arm about my shoulders, I guess in an effort to prevent me from making any sudden movements. None of us knows exactly what to expect from this—I don’t think even the queen knows that.

Llyr stands still and for a few moments appears outwardly tense. He takes one eager step forward and looks across to the rest of us. All is quiet. Steadily he steps up to the Sword, which seems now to glow dimly. He moves around to the opposite side of the stone cube and sphere in which the sword is embedded and stares back at us. Llyr’s hand moves over the hilt of the sword, and I jerk my head away from John’s grip.

Llyr grasps the hilt, and now the Sword shines a bright shade of blue. At the sight of this, John removes his two swords, and the king moves to John’s side. The queen, however, stands firm, her hand lowering the sword at her waist.

With one sudden twist, Llyr has the Sword raised into the air. The Sword glistens as a cloud of blue flame encircles him. When the glow disperses, a shocking figure remains which seems to push back the light, shorter than our disguised former companion—a strong Gargoyle in full armor, Charmit.

The queen removes her shield, draws her sword.

The Gargoyle lowers the mighty Sword, and, unfolding his great wings from his back, he speaks, “it seems you are worth something after all.”

“You and your evil minions, the Gargoyles, will not get away with this for long, Charmit,” the queen says sternly. “Tell your dark lady, Morgana, that this world will never bow to her rule.”

The Gargoyle chuckles deeply and raises his dark mouth to an evil grin. “The last time we met, you had the element of surprise on your side,” he hisses. “This time, however, the tides have changed in my favor. I have one prize for my lady resting in my hand, and, to complete the circle, I’m afraid you will all have to die!”

“You will not take us without a fight!” the queen proclaims.

“I suspected an unselfish attempt to defend your meager companions. But, I am sorry to say, it will not last long.” Charmit raises the Sword and places it before him. “I have the Sword of Truth, and I have ten times your strength.”

She stands unwavering, watching.

“And… you are a woman.”

Anger and determination fill Dayona’s eyes. With one loud, frustrated scream, she charges, shield out, swinging her sword. Soon she is nearly on top of him. Charmit swings a wing into her side, dodging her thrust, knocking her sideways. He thrusts the Sword. Blood, a scream, and a sword rings out as it strikes the rocky ground—the queen staggers backward and falls to her knees. She makes one last, cold stare at her opponent, and now falls face first to the rocky ground, unmoving. Time stops, if only for just this one second.

The exact instant the queen hits the floor, John makes one loud, ear-piercing scream and races forward, swords swinging.

Charmit backs to the opposite wall. He lifts the majestic sword at his side, but somehow it is as if some unseen force is holding it down. No matter how hard he tries, the Sword does not rise. The Sword explodes in light, and he is forced to let go.

John leaps on top of the stone pedestal and off it onto Charmit’s chest, knocking him against the cavern wall. Charmit slips to the ground, rolls to his side with wings folded as John thrashes his sword. The blade clangs upon rock.

Charmit tries to recapture the Sword, but John kicks the beast back. The Raider drops the Gargoyle blade, reaching down to pick up the Sword of Truth for himself.

Charmit backs along the ground to the wall as John towers before him, holding up the Sword of Truth. The Gargoyle’s wings spread out and flap at John with a wallop of air, knocking John off balance. Charmit rises off the ground, hovering just out of reach of the Sword, flapping his wings.

“There’ll be no more acts of evil here!” John declares. “Go while you still can!”

“There is no time for this fighting now,” Charmit says. “But there will be, and I will not be so kind as to let you go.” Charmit’s wings, thrusting down with a gust of air, cause him to soar upward into the shaft of light, disappearing through the opening high above.

I step toward the queen, lying still. John and the king follow. At the sound of our approach, she raises her head as best she can and speaks, “get me to my feet.”

“How bad are you hurt?” asks the king.

“I cannot say,” she replies, grasping for breath. “Help me up.”

The king helps her sit up. She looks down at her waist, where her leather armor is stained with blood across her left side. There is a bloody gash just above her left hip. “We’ve got to get some help,” John states.

“I think I am strong enough to travel a few more days since the bleeding has apparently stopped. It does not seem to be all that bad.” She stops for a breath. “I need some water.”

John swiftly takes the half-full waterskin from his back and helps her get it to her lips. She drinks. When finished, she hands it back.

“We have to bandage you up,” starts John, nervous, looking around. “Okay, Kalla, help me get her armor off.”

They remove her leather vest armor, looking at the cut in her skin, still bleeding but not profusely. John shakes off his chainmail vest and removes his shirt. John lifts her undershirt, examining the wound. She cries in pain.

John wraps his shirt around her waist, tying tightly together. “She’s not going to be walking back,” John says.

“I am weak, but I shall try,” she indicates, struggling to push herself up.

“No!” John forces her back.

“Thou shalt not speak to me in that manner! I am your queen!”

“And I am your knight. And I… I love you.”

She stares up at him, complacently contemplating. She breathes exhaustively.

“What are we going to do?” asks the king. “We can’t carry her all the way back to the castle.”

At this, I move to the front of the queen and stand over her, continually bobbing my head and whinnying. “Yes, we can,” John explains. “I think Jed wants her to ride him.”

“Yes, I think so too. Let’s help her up.” And so, in little time John and the king have her on my back, leaning forward against my mane.

John slips his chainmail vest back over his bare, muscular chest, throws his supply straps around his shoulder, and slips the Sword of Truth along his back underneath. The king gathers his things, and some of the queen’s supplies they wrap around my neck. I have no problem handling the queen’s weight, so we proceed onward out of the cavern chamber.

Return to Westmoor

With Dayona slumping on my back, I trot beside John and the king out the main stone gate of the cold, rocky fortress—the clip-clop of my hooves over the stone floor of the keep ceases as I step into the wooded landscape. Heavy of hearts, weary of the queen’s injury, we solemnly but steadily retreat from the wall. I would have thought carrying someone on my back even this long would become too tiresome, but my strong equestrian spine and sturdy, muscular legs are more than enough.

The queen moans, but insists she is fine. We stop under the shade of a tall maple, standing by itself away from the rest of the green stalagmites of the wood. John leaves the queen leaning forward against my mane when he and the king step away to argue about which way we should go. I can’t watch as they have stepped out of my view, and I’m worried to move because of Dayona.

“Look at the map!” John cries. “Just look at the map! Look at Galidor’s map!”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” the king replies. “I was going to do that anyway, for your information.” I can hear him open his backpack, crumbling open the map. “Don’t look over my shoulder!”

“How am I supposed to see it then?”

“You don’t need to.”

“We probably should head north. We should go north around the lake, then back upstream.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

“Well,” John continues in a sarcastic tone, “what does His Majesty wish?”

“We will travel around the north side of the lake.”

“Thank you.”

“Or maybe we should make a boat!”

“And how are you going to do that? We don’t have time.”

“Fine.”

I can feel the queen start to slip off my back. I neigh loudly. “Dayona!” John shouts as he races back over, reaching me and grabbing the queen just in time, laying her balanced again against my mane.

We start off again soon after, making our way to the lakeside and traveling along it northward. We pick up our pace, journeying steady and hastily, not stopping again for a few hours. This time, my companions do not make the same mistake again and help Dayona off me first, leaning her against a tree. She is still coherent, though not talkative, and takes to napping quite often. She is weak of strength, and I dare not think she is getting weaker.

Four nearly two more days we travel through Abbey Wood. Once out in the open, away from the trees, I suddenly get the idea that I could gallop ahead far faster, and get the wounded queen aid before too late. But not by myself. I need John at least to get on with her to brace her and keep her from falling, if and when she swoons.

I stop, bob my head up and down, bend down on my front legs and up again, neighing exhaustively. Still, John and the king look at me in confusion, thinking me turning savage or otherwise degenerating into a wild animal. Eventually, I convince John to declare, “I think he’s trying to tell us something.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. I’m going to have to get a little more aggressive, so I whip my head around and bite John’s belt, holding it in my mouth. “Hey!” he cries.

“I think he’s hungry,” jokes the king.

“You ate that big bush of blackberries back there.”

I shake my head continually, snorting and whinnying. “You okay, Jed?” asks the king.

I bump my nose into John’s side and wave my head around toward my back. “I think he wants you to get on,” the king observes.

Finally. I nod my head in response and smile the best I can. “You think you can get there faster? Is that it, buddy?” I keep nodding.

“I could get on with her,” John continues, “but what about Kalla?” John turns down to the king. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave you behind, Kalla. You can catch up with us later.”

“No, no,” he insists aggravatingly, “you’re not leaving me behind! I’m not walking back to the castle by myself with those Gargoyles out there!”

“Maybe you can get on too. But even if you can’t, I think Jed’s right. I don’t think she’s going to make it much longer without some doctor or medicine of some kind.”

“I think I can get on behind you two.”

“Okay, let’s try this.” John climbs up onto my back behind Dayona, scooting her up over my shoulders. He reaches down to the king and helps pull him up onto my lower back. They scoot up and back a few times.

“You ready, back there?” John asks.

“Good as can be.”

“Okay. We’re ready. Jed… Away!!”

I gallop ahead for a minute before John screams. I slow my pace. “You okay, John?” asks the king.

“I thought I was going to fall for a second. I’m okay, I think I got it now.” I can feel him squeezing tightly around Dayona and bracing against my shoulders. My companions apparently secure, I start off again, not as fast a start as before, but make a good pace.

After a little practice, John is willing to go faster, so I eventually get up to a fast gallop and keep it up, off and on, for much of the day. We fly through the open plains, not far north of the creek, following it upstream.

Sometime late in the day we come upon a dusty road along the creek and follow it only for a short while before coming across a supply laden wagon, led by one very large, muscular horse. I run up along its side and notice two human males in the seat—a plump, dark haired one, and at the reigns, and one I recognize. It is Alistair, the commoner fellow whom the king and I met back at the castle during the tournament. I neigh loudly and slow.

“Aye, up, there!” he calls as he sees us. “Whoa!” He jerks the reigns back and slows the wagon to a stop.

“What be these strangers, Alistair?” the plump man asks.

“Them Deforian lords I met at the tournament. At least one of ‘em.”

“Ooh split Lord Mortimer’s arra in two?

“By gum, that be ‘im.”

“Good day to you!” the king declares.

“Where be yer bonnie lad? The archer?”

“Well, he’s…”

“He’s the horse,” John explains.

“The… horse?”

“Long story.”

The queen moans in pain. “The queen needs desperate help! I don’t know how much longer she’ll last. Let’s hurry!”

“Is that there the queen?!” asks Alistair in wonderment.

“She was wounded in battle,” says John.

“She don’t look well. Better take ‘er back to my ‘ome. My girt is a ‘ealer.”

“That ain’t no bonnie lass, Alistair!” the plump one warns. “If she dies, yer losin yer noggin!”

“I ain’t gonna let ‘er die! ‘Elp me get ‘er in the wagon.”

Alistair drops from the wagon and hurries over to us as John slowly slips off my back, holding Dayona steady. With Alistair helping to lift her, John swings her over his shoulder as Alistair supports her side. They walk around me to the wagon. The king scoots up along my back to my shoulders and pats my neck. I’m not sure if he’s joking, so I snort and whinny.

“Steady,” he calls.

John moves around me to the back of the wagon. Alistair helps him lay her in the back over three soft looking sacks. She moans and turns to her side, apparently sleeping. “She is a right pretty lass,” Alistair says.

“Alistair!” warns the plump one again. “Your Majesty!”

“That she is,” admits John. He turns. “Kalla, I’ll ride with the queen to Alistair’s house. You guys ride behind us.”

The plump one huffs in frustration. “Ye don’t know what yer getting into, Alistair.”

“Aye, I do!” Alistair replies, climbing into the seat. “I’m savin ‘er Majesty, the queen!”

John climbs into the back of the wagon, sitting next to Dayona, holding her hand. “Yah!” calls out Alistair as he jerks the reigns, and his horse hurries at a fast trot away down the road.

The king pats my neck again. ‘Let’s be off, my royal steed!” he calls.

Notwithstanding, I jerk both my legs out behind me. The king loses his balance and falls off. I spin around and neigh in laughter over him.

“You’re gonna pay for that, Jed!”

I whinny back.

“Now, can we go?”

I lower my head and kneel on my front legs to make it easier for him to climb onto my back. And he does.

“Alright!” He leans toward my ear, his voice lowered. “Any time you’re ready.

I start ahead at a slow trot down the road, carrying the king, and slowly speed up.

The king riding me, we follow Alistair’s wagon off the road to the north, past fields of rows of short potato plants, being pulled by many peasants wearing drab clothes. The potatoes are thrown into the back of large, wooden wagon hitched to a long-horned ox. Continuing past more fields of wheat and barley, we come upon an old barn with muddy pen where goats are kept, and passing it, to large house built with a wooden frame, thatched roof, and walls apparently of brick or rock—the windows of which are simply opened wooden boards.

As the wagon comes to a stop, a woman with knotted hair is seen dumping a bowl of stew out a side window. She sees us and shouts, “Alistair! You’re ‘ome!”

“And we’ve company!” calls back Alistair as he climbs down. “Get the wash water ready!”

She slips back inside. He hurries off the wagon to open the front door. “Aye up, lads!” Two boys run to him from inside, one I recall from the tournament.

“Father!” calls one boy. Alistair hugs them and goes back to the wagon. John gets out. He and Alistair go around back, pick up Dayona between them.

“’Ho’s that, father?” cries one of the boys.

“She’s the queen, son,” replies Alistair.

“The queen! Truly?” The boys run around John and Alistair as they carry Dayona through the doorway, trying to get a better look at her. The king drops from my back and follows after them. And, of course, I’m left standing.

The plump man climbs back into the wagon seat, takes the reigns with a flip, and leads the horse forward. He circles the wagon around and rides back toward me. “Ye just garn t’ stand there?”

I neigh back. He rolls his eyes and continues driving the wagon back toward the barn. But maybe he has a point there. Am I just going to stand here? I turn to see the front door of the house is shut, indicating that my companions have either forgotten all about me or perhaps no longer desire my company, now that I’m a horse. I grunt at the thought of it.

Time passes, and boredom sets in. A tall farmhand approaches, looking at me in a gawking fashion. I stare at him, wondering what he is really planning to do—he leans toward my head, putting an arm around the back of my neck. I shake my mane. “Ooh left ye out ‘ere all by yerself?”

I stare back, whinnying, prancing my forelegs forcefully.

“’Enry!” the man calls back over me—I can’t see to whom. “’Elp me get this ‘orse back in the barn! ‘E looks a might stubborn!

At the sound of that, I jump, kicking back my back legs, bucking and neighing loudly. The farmhand leaps back. “’Enry! Quick!”

I hurry to the door, examining the door handle. I twist my head sideways and grab it with my teeth. “What’s ‘e doing?” I hear another man’s voice behind me, presumably Henry’s.

I manage to back up and pull the door open. Quickly, I walk inside to see the queen lying on a table, wearing little more than her undergarments, and over her is Alistair’s wife. The queen’s stomach and abdomen are bare, revealing her wound, a bloody gash. Alistair’s wife holds the wound closed with one hand and attentively sews the gap closed a needle and thread. A rag hangs over a bucket of wash-water on the floor.

“Oh, Kreva! Oh, Kreva!” Alistair’s wife wails as she concentrates. John, Alistair, and the king hover over the queen, watching. Alistair’s two boys stand away in a corner.

“Put wood in the ‘ole, there!” call’s Alistair’s wife, not turning up.

“What?” asks John.

“Shut the door, she says,” explains Alistair.

She looks up at me. “Get that ‘orse out of me ‘ouse!”

I trot toward them and try to speak, but a whinny comes out. “That’s not a ‘orse, dear,” begins Alistair.

“Ma’am, meet Jed,” John indicates.

“’E were turned by magic.”

“Right,” the nursing wife speaks. “Magic or not, keep ‘im away from the table.”

I step backward a little. I don’t want any trouble.

“’Ere, horsie!” I hear Henry from behind me in the doorway. “’Enry’s got a carrot for ye!”

I jump up and down, bucking and neighing. The floor shakes. A bookcase falls. “Alistair!” cries his wife, as she holds the queen tightly. I think I over did it.

John runs up to me as I stop. “Calm down, buddy,” John says, putting an arm around my mane. “Nobody’s going to hurt you, but you’re going to have to wait outside.”

“Wait outside, Jed,” the king orders.

I snort and turn about, facing another farmhand in the doorway, Henry, holding a large carrot. “Fenwick, ‘Enry,” Alistair calls, “let the ‘orse out and leave ‘im be.”

The farmhands back away, and I solemnly walk out the door. Someone shuts the door behind me. I can tell when I’m not wanted. But I must say, my friends were rather rude about it.

The first farmhand has walked off, while Henry dangles the carrot in front of me. “I guess ye don’t want yer carrot,” he says. I lurch forward and bite the end of it. He jerks back, startled. “Blimey! Off on yer own, then.” He walks away as I chew up the end of the carrot—the rest of it falls on the ground. Without thinking twice about it, I am a horse after all, I lower my head to pick up the rest of the carrot out of the dirt to eat. I am a horse, and I am quite hungry.

Dawn comes to Alistair’s farm. It’s hard to believe it myself, but I’ve not moved from this spot in front of the house all night long, having got little sleep. My legs stiff, my stomach growling, I feel terrible. No one has bothered me, though no one inside has bothered to come out here to check on me either. Maybe they know I’m tough enough to deal with anything around here, but more likely they just forgot all about me. I’m just another beast of burden, who is apparently also now a burden to his friends.

Eventually the door does open. Alistair runs out, calling the farmhands for the wagon. John and the king leave the house and approach me. “You ready to go, Jed?” asks John.

I turn to stare at him, not making a noise.

“Sorry we didn’t come out to see you last night,” the king says, “but we were really worried about the queen. She’s still alive but won’t be for long.”

“Here’s the plan. Kalla will ride with Alistair and the queen in the wagon, and I’m going to ride you!” John pats my back, I neigh. “So, try to take it easy, okay? I’m still getting the hang of riding.”

“You drink any?” asks the king. “You better get some water, Jed. It’s still a long ride back to the castle.” Water? I look around. The king turns my head back toward the barn, showing me a dirty water trough near the goat pin, where another horse laps up the liquid. I snort and shake my head.

Nonetheless, I walk over to the trough. The other horse has finished drinking and looks up at me. I whinny and show my teeth. The other horse snorts and backs away. By myself now, I lower to start lapping up the water thirstily. The taste is quite unpleasant, somewhere between that of a rotten apple and algae-filled pond water—yet strangely refreshing.

Alistair rides the horse driven wagon to the house. He and John carry out the queen, placing her softly in the back. The king and Alistair climb into the seat. I hurry over, and John climbs onto my back. Henceforth, we are all off down the dirt road away through the farmlands.

We ride quickly through the small town of East Point, John upon my back, following the wagon. By the time we reach open road again, we ride as swiftly as possible. We do not stop again until clear of Core Wood, and even this break is fleeting. Exuberant yet fatigued, we race back to Westmoor Castle, arriving late in the afternoon.

“Open the drawbridge! Open the drawbridge!” John shouts as we approach. “We have the queen!”

The drawbridge is lowered. The Constable and a group of knights hurry out to greet us as the wagon rolls across the bridge into the outer courtyard.

Through the Maze of Courage

I stand in the archway leading into the great hall, where John sits solemnly, bent over, hands over head. The king stands beside him, consoling him. A long night has passed, a dark time of unending fear and uncertainty. I myself have slept maybe a few restless hours on my feet—John, I think, somewhat less. Those attending to the queen, her chief surgeon in particular, have expressed the view that Dayona might not make it through the night. Well, morning has come, and she is still with us… for now.

Alistair approaches from farther inside the hall, eating a fresh roll just laid on a table near the fire pit where sit seven nobles. “The queen be a strong lady,” Alistair says.

“She’s more than just a lady,” John mumbles. “She’s a real hero. If anybody ever deserved to be queen, it’s her.”

“We all love her, John,” the king says. “She’s a part of our family, and if she ever leaves us, she will be sorely missed till the end.”

“Thanks.”

And so, we again fall silent, nervously awaiting the next bit of news regarding Dayona’s health. But in that devesting quiet, an echo rises through the hallway off the inner courtyard. We all turn. “Astoria!” someone calls from afar. “Astoria has arrived!”

At once, the four of us hurry outside and with a crowd of Raiders through the gate into the outer courtyard. Many are gathered before the drawbridge to witness a Deforian upon a large eagle-bear float down from above. The flying beast is like a large bear, having a snout instead of beak, with expansive eagle-like wings. The eagle-bear spreads wings wide, wallops the air downward with two fluttering thrusts as it slows to a landing just within the castle wall.

Astoria, the Deforian rider, climbs off her mount as the eagle-bear folds its wings. She has smooth features like a young Deforian lady, but her great age and maturity can be guessed by her pungent, inquiring gaze across to us, and her slightly stooped stance. “The queen is hurt!” John shouts, approaching. “She’s dying!”

“Get me to her quickly,” Astoria says.

John and the king lead her in haste through the gateway into the heart of the castle. Some of the observes follow, but those who remain gather about the eagle-bear, gawking in fascination. The beast roars, shakes its feathers. The Raiders back and keep a distance.

I wait, wondering if I should stay and await my companions’ return or go after them. I finally decide to trot through the gate myself, eyeing everyone about me and keeping a distance as I cross the courtyard. Clip-clop—hooves step onto the stone floor as I head into the great hall. “Stop that horse!” yells a knight from behind me.

I quicken my pace into the hall, clippity-cloppity-clippity, hurrying past the fire pit toward the throne room. I hear the sound of many boots coming up fast not far behind. I pass through the archway into the chamber. Four armored knights circle me. My pace slows as one, Sir Robin, steps just in front of me, palm out. “Halt!” he commands.

I jump up onto my hind legs, neighing loudly, pounding my fore-hooves into the air, almost into his chest. He draws his sword as the others back.

John runs out the back doorway. “Stop!” he cries. “Leave him alone!”

The knight lowers his sword and turns. I plant my hooves onto the ground and quiet. John runs up to us as Astoria, Alistair, the king, and Dayona, bright as ever and wearing a royal dress, enter behind the throne—three handmaidens follow.

John walks up to me and pats my neck. “Hold on, buddy. We’ll get you fixed.” He leads me toward the dais, where the king, Alistair, and Astoria stand, while Dayona takes seat upon the throne. Sir Robin also approaches.

“Alistair,” Dayona calls, “step before the throne.”

Alistair hesitantly goes to stand before her. “Your Majesty,” he bows.

“Because of the bravery and courage thou has’t shown thy queen, we appoint thee Earl of East Point, lord of all lands east of Core Wood forest, north of the creek, west of Abbey Wood.”

Tears form in Alistair’s eyes. He nervously turns to face John and me, and now also Sir Robin beside him. “Your Grace,” Sir Robin addresses him.

“Thank ye,” he shakingly speaks to Dayona. “Thank thee, my queen. I shall always serve thee with strength and honor.’

Dayona smiles. “I know thou shalt.”

John steps up to Alistair, and the king joins them. “Now you can join us lords, buddy,” John declares and pats his back. Alistair nervously smiles.

Astoria walks down from the dais and approaches the king. “Hand me the Royal Scepter,” she says. The king reaches into his backpack to grab he Scepter and gives it to her.

“Kneel upon one knee,” she begins. The king does so. Astoria places the end of the Scepter upon one of the king’s shoulders. “As the last of the Keepers of Angoll,” she says solemnly, lifting and tapping his other shoulder with the Scepter, “in the spirit of the Truce of Union of old, I declare thee King Kalla of Deforia, Defender and Sovereign of all the known lands of Angoll. Rise, Your Imperial Majesty.”

The king rises, appearing timid at first but takes a deep breath and holds his head high. Astoria gives him the Scepter, and he places it into his backpack. Those about us, including Astoria, John, and Sir Robin, bow to him. I neigh and lower my head.

The queen lowers her head only slightly. “We pledge our lands, our people, to the throne of Deforia,” she states, “for the defense of Angoll against the threat of the Dark Lady, but this kingdom shall remain sovereign over the lands of the Kretan Rahnat.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty,” the king says.

Have they forgotten about me? I neigh loudly, prancing my hooves.

Astoria smiles at me. “Hand me the Sword of Truth, Sir John,” she commands.

“Now it’s you turn, Jed,” John says. He draws the Sword from his back and hands Astoria the hilt. Gripping it firmly with both hands, she clearly uses all her strength to lift it parallel with the floor, pointed at me. I lower my head. “Ever change for ever more,” she bellows, “switch this semblance I implore.”

A blue flame glides down her arm into the Sword, which lights up brilliantly. With a gust of force, the flame leaps onto me and surrounds me, holding me, warming me. I feel as if I am spinning, my eyes losing focus, as a heaviness pushes me downward. My neck and arms shrink, tail grows, until I am crouching on my hands and feet near the floor. The light fades as a chill meets my naked body.

I stand, breathing slowly. “Welcome back,” John says, looking down at me, while he takes the Sword back from Astoria.

“Thank you,” I say to Astoria, who smiles lovingly. “And by the Krevetat, bless you, Lady. Bless you.”

The king removes his backpack. He reaches into it to pull out my trousers and shirt. He hands them to me. I take them and put them on.

“Astoria,” the king begins, “we found an emblem of the Deforian Royal seal on a Gargoyle when they attacked the castle. What news is there from the Garden Realm?”

“The Gargoyles, in great numbers, laid siege on the Garden Realm. It was a fierce, surprise attack. The Council is broken, and the princes are now scattered. Many have taken refuge in Mirma Gan.”

“So, war has begun,” I assert.

“Yes, the fight for Angoll wages even now, although the Gargoyles have gone for the time being. They destroyed the realm, but were in the end defeated. Morgana must open portals from Valoid using her strange devices, and these portals are unstable. She will have to wait again to build another force before the next attack.”

“That’s probably what she needs the Good Doctor for,” comments John.

“Who?” I ask.

“Doctor Lawrence. They took him from Earth. Tom and I followed him and got stuck here. They said they needed his formulas so they could form an invasion.”

“So, where is he? This Doctor.”

“The Gargoyles we met at the Griffin’s told us he escaped. That’s all I know.”

“Hopefully he manages to evade them for good.”

“He’s really smart. I think he will.”

I glance at the king, who seems strangely silent and aloof. He grabs the straps of his backpack and tightens it over his shoulders. “They found the Griffin’s stronghold. We scared them off, but what if they went back and read what was written on the walls?”

“The Gargoyles did return,” says Astoria, “and for days held the stronghold as their own until I formed a party of Delcorites and took back the keep. Yes, Morgana now knows that the Heir of Deforia has come, and you, Kalla Desdain, are the next king of a new Deforian Empire.”

“Bummer,” decries John.

Dawn to a New Adventure

The fresh, colored hues of morning light shine over the Castle of Westmoor, much of the outer courtyard still shadowed as the sun has not yet risen above the walls. I stand beside Astoria to face my departing companions.

Two horses and a pony have been laden with supplies—John, the king, and Dayona stand nearby. A great many knights and noblefolk crowd stand around us and the open drawbridge. The queen again has left the Constable, Lord Irwen, in charge of the castle in her upcoming long absence, as it has been decided that Dayona will accompany John and the king on their last, great quest to seek out the Shield of the Sun and find any news of the Griffin from those faraway Lands of Knowledge across the Sea of Power in the distant east. John wears a chainmail vest and the Sword of Truth in a sheath across his back, the king, with heavy shirt, short sword, and backpack, and Dayona, again in a suit of leather armor with sword and shield.

“Jehoobud will return with me to the Lake Lands to give news of the coming of the Heir of Deforia, and to rally support for a unification of North and South Lake Boroughs under the flag of the Deforian Empire to stand up against Morgana.”

“We’ll miss you, Jed,” John says.

“You’ve been a fabulous defender to your king,” says the king. “You’ve made me proud.”

“I have been proud to serve you, Sire,” I tell him. “I will serve you well in your absence.”

“I know you will, Jehoobud. I know you will.”

John and Dayona mount their horses, and the king his pony. “Now be off with you,” Astoria says, “and may the glory of Angoll go with you!”

“May the Krevetat watch over you!” I call.

“May the Krevetat be with us all.”

Dayona jerks her reigns and turns her horse toward the drawbridge opening. “Adios!” John calls, turns his horse, and the three of them ride away.

I watch as my three weary friends, my family of sorts, ride into the sunlight, off into the distant unknown and an uncertain future for us all.

Morgana Awaits

The story of the battle for Angoll continues through Dayona’s eyes as she, John, and Kalla begin a perilous quest for the Shield of the Sun in the Lands of Knowledge. Their journey takes them across the Sea of Power, and even unto Valoid, where they come face to face with the Dark Lady herself, the dragon Morgana.

Coming 2018


Guardians of the Sword (Raiders of the Dawn Book 2)

The fight for Angoll continues, told from the point of view of Jehoobud, as he, John, and Kalla enter the mysterious Swamps of Mist. Hidden within these desolate wastes lies the lands of the Kretan Rahnat, descendants of the original Raiders from Earth. Here, our three adventurers find an ally in the young, warrior queen of the Kretan Rahnat, Dayona. John grows into a man before his time, embracing what it means to be a real hero, accepting what may soon be his role in the growing battle against evil. Dayona takes him under her tutelage. A strong friendship between them begins, blossoming into romance. Charmit leads the Gargoyles in pursuit, and the battle for the freedom of Angoll has begun. Under the looming threat of Morgana, Dayona joins John, Kalla, and Jehoobud through peril and deceit on their quest for the legendary Sword of Truth.

  • ISBN: 9781370337668
  • Author: M. Benjamin Woodall
  • Published: 2017-09-20 02:20:16
  • Words: 38718
Guardians of the Sword (Raiders of the Dawn Book 2) Guardians of the Sword (Raiders of the Dawn Book 2)