Quest for a King
295 pages
English

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Quest for a King

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295 pages
English

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Obtenez un accès à la bibliothèque pour le consulter en ligne
En savoir plus

Description

A stolen Kingdom and a black-hearted Queen. A Royal determined to atone a death and restorea throne, teaming up with two dissimilar characters: one, a longtime absent knight, thought dead; the other, a notorious black-marketeer. A dragon and a mystic; with spiritual interpretations far exceeding levels of understanding and an appointment suspended in time. An age old war Lord, obsessed with claiming the most prized Kingdom of them all.


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Publié par
Date de parution 27 novembre 2017
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780987604040
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0027€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

QUEST FOR A KING
 
 

 
by ASTOR QUINLY AURIN
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © ASTOR QUINLY AURIN
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the copyright owner and publisher.
 
Revised edition published 2017
 
ISBN 978-0-9876040-2-6 
 
Dedicated to Life, who gives all infinite spiritual ideas
 
 
 
Cover design : N. Clarke
 
Lodged with the National Library of Australia
 
 
Also by the same author
SEACHING RORY O’MAY by ASTOR QUINLY AURIN
 
 
 
 
 
CHAPTER 1                            
 
Two black-eyed robins hovered, gaily, lifting the pages of an ancient text as it turned another leaf in the period of the Middle Ages, in the small farming village of Neymooth, situated in the outer principality of Cramorne. Being remote, many of the smaller towns had been besieged by a presence too strong to repel, their numbers dwindling, the constant raids leaving the inhabitants in despair.
By the time they had alerted the principality of these intrusions some distance away, the villains had gone; and the King of the region, a just man, was left trying to figure out what had occurred. The townsfolk were finally at breaking point, congregated, fists flying en masse, approaching the man in charge; he, a gracious little gent with tight black locks and a stubborn line to his jaw, his name Si.
“We have to do something. They have absconded with our women folk and now stripped us of everything we own. There’s not a farthing left,” a spokesman assailed, too often used to seeing them pass the bag on such occasions, but always were they unable to act.
“We’re trying, it’s just… it takes too long for our friends to reach us,” the headman responded, his brow harshly creased, hoping for a solution to spring forth that could improve their standing. Then someone, most unassuming, realizing a pattern, came forth.
Hamish McTague, a tall, blond-haired man, stood passively, piecing together his thoughts. Softly spoken, he rubbed an intelligent brow suggesting that it was advisable to have the soldiers wait till the time came due. His son, a lean adolescent with the same reflective head of hair, watched patiently, allowing him to finish, before commenting.
“Father, you’re a legion with the arrow, but a poor excuse for a fighter. Why don’t we learn to fight properly; least, when the time comes, we’ll have some form of defense?” his son commented. Party, too often, to his exploits unfolding, to feel any form of confidence; his father’s sword play lacking dexterity, it giving rise more to good luck than good management, and his fist-flying best left unsaid; aware, he was generally side-stepping any issue that should involve either.
“Fighting doesn’t make you any better than them,” Hamish McTague asserted, refusing to stoop to their level of deviousness and stubbornly resisting.
But the young Clarence McTague refused to budge. He had seen the carnage too often, too heinous, not to want to do something about it; remembering a close acquaintance he had seen snatched, the young women he had grown a liking for, unceremoniously seized. Undeterred, he headed off against his father’s wishes to a small coastal community where, he knew for certain, there lived a man versed in the prospect. Clarence was feeling some degree of remorse; having left others to tend to the harvest, knowing its extent and the crops near due. His father’s words were echoing in his ears, knowing the reputation of the township. “Clary, it’s with deep reservation I ask you not to go there. Those people are uneducated barbarians. Be awake to the pitfalls.”
But, stubbornly, Clary proceeded onwards; tramping from his hinterland village for a number of miles, before coming to the sizeable port town by the name of Schleem; its harbor tucked nicely away from the blast of the sea should it happen, with its stilted cliffs and craggy outcrops looking down, with plated-like armor around; seemingly, there was only one way into the township as out, unless someone had the agility of a wall fly.
Contemplating the alien’s surroundings, anyone from the town could see someone approach its windswept stretch, long before they were spotted, should their arrival be of interest, unless the journey was attempted by sea. The opportune draw card, presumably, was attracting a gathering of sailors of all denominations to the one spot. Their sun-baked appearance and ruthless attitudes seemed adverse; they, preferring to supplant order with upheaval, had been blown in by a bleak wind and even blacker sail. They were permanently inhabiting the town’s dwelling, with too few employed to police its situation, and locals were growing vehemently opposed to them also.
The town was a renowned haven for all generality, and a hub of business reflecting the same; a flavored mix of nationalities, giving it fervor like no other, with its variation of food types, merchandise and growth. But also lurking, notably, was an undercurrent of transactions, performed within the blink of an eye and a nudge of a deceptive elbow, all knowingly. Anyone who dared venture there had best be on their toes, and sleep with a snapping dog alongside them.
Clary rested his long limbs for a while, marveling at the cool blue of the sea and its varying degrees of shade, as it smacked thunderously upon the rocky shore, the wrench out, and roar in, mesmerizing; the air thick with salt and the invigorating smell of seaweed.
There were many ships in the shaded harbor, some at full rig, as if ready to blow with the sudden puff of a wayward wind, their bows sporting proudly with a favored mascot displaying predominantly, and their names etched boldly in their stern; they sitting swan-like, innocent, in the broody swell.
Clary walked further, coming across the main thoroughfare, it displaying quaint little shops and pecuniary concerns, shouldering each other for business. Some, two stories high, reflecting the span of the large town; presumably, with their proprietor living upstairs, having not far to go.
The air was flagrant with entertainment, mixed with sharp barnacles. The majority were flaunting rules – drawing contempt by those morally upright. Many in the town were forever trying to turn a blind eye, or not wishing to consider the outsiders at all. One gentleman, in particular, was taking umbrage; a tall nobleman in his black-tailored suit and fine britches suddenly appeared. His jaw square-set and obsessively honing in on a drunk who lay sprawled on his outside door. Holding above the inebriate a large bucket of water, he was giving him the full brunt; rapidly, the inert body was rousing itself to life.
“Rat shit, I’ve been undone,” the drunk cursed woefully; remnants of words were sticking to the wall of his pallet, as he staggered to face the aggressor.
“Bug off, ya grubby git; and make yourself useful.” This gentleman had been pushed by one drunk too many; he was now straightening his lapel as he exuded a cranky eye.
“Indecently perverse,” the drunkard grated, coming from an educated background, something the other never picked up on. He moved off unrushed, ignoring the water thrower, his bloodshot eyes made worse by the fog in his pounding head.
Clary continued on, viewing an altercation, then another in the space of five minutes, seemingly by the same participants. As if they were on a consecutive relay, all riotous drunken, he was ignoring them as he went. Going inside to make a purchase, he smelt the waft of newly-baked bread as it threaded its way through the air as though charmed. The baker, a jovial fellow with a pendulous gut, was swinging his appendage to and fro; handing into Clary’s palm some buns, with a dappling of grain still warm, incorporated in its mix. Clary sat on an outer step, devouring the contents eagerly, realizing the address he was seeking was just across the way; a sturdy-looking, dark-wooded establishment with seafaring merchandise prominently exhibited. He was noticing, too, at the same time, not one of the streets possessed a name, but the premises was numbered unusually, changeably, as if purposely out to confuse, perhaps, as a deterrent in case of detection. Clary was surmising all this, but was not thoroughly convinced. Skeptically, he was now observing the numbers flick at a whim as they altered once more.
“Can I be of assistance?” a rangy man with a raggedy grey coat asserted, his face pocked severely; his dark hair lank about his forehead, and the words slipping off his tongue in a greasy manner.
“No thanks, I’ve found that for which I’m searching.” Clary grated perceptively, brusque in manner, willing him to disappear.
“Name’s Abrinthe Flue, and this is my associate, Oggly Gumgrot.” The other man was a stout little customer, with an exceedingly down-turned nose, and a face as hard as a pressed pea. He sniffed as if inconvenienced, as though his nose was giving him bother.
“I see you have arrived by the road least travelled,” the taller of the two noted, his jaw chewing with overconfidence. “It makes good sense that we should offer you our services, and invite you for an ale in the nearest inn.” He stretched a bony, persuasive hand; the words sliding off his tongue as though well rehearsed; his crude eye speculating beneath a dark, battered hat. The lad was strong and lean, a worthy catch for one of his eminent clients, or perhaps, an auction of sorts, whereby he could be sorted appropriately, and gain utmost profit. He rubbed his fingerless gloves as though delighted. He being a scout for slavers, was knowing the boy could be utilized to the upmost; perhaps to a land to enhance production, or, better still, to be expediently shipped offshore. Laborers given to hard graft were in short supply, as many businesses had faltered; dimly wishing to re-employ. Boats, too, waited in the harbor, deliberating their turn, expectant of new crew, whether they were receptive or not. The slippery scout did not care where the boats landed, so long as he was paid. His fat stash was growing miserly; he was mindful of the day not too distant when he could spend it, and not become answerable to anyone; not one irritating pesky soul, especially a crusty old sea captain to whom he had taken hard exception.
“Not interested, and definitely unwanted,” replied Clary offhandedly, in a tone bristling annoyance.
“It is rash to make assumptions when it’s our privilege to place people in careers to which they can only dream; the pay’s excellent and the accommodation’s free,” offered the crafty trader, building imagery and exaggerating to the point of extremes.
“There’s nothing you could offer that I would remotely accept.” The response came tartly, and Clary was trying to distance himself from the exchange so he would leave the trader alone.
The smaller man whispered earnestly in his friend’s ear.
“Yes, we also have fat bonuses in store; a full months’ pay, given to those wishing to start today,” the tall man insisted, dangling his prize before him.
Clary continued on – clearly, ignoring the offer – but not the man. If there was one thing his father had taught him, it was how to reserve his judgment. Feeling distrust was rattling the bones of his core.
“You know where we are, should you change your mind?” addressed the speculator, coarsely spitting a yellow substance ground-ward, then proceeding to light a pungent smoke.
Clary could feel his crude eye slide over him, only leaving for sure when he had entered the premises for which he was searching. Inside its shop-like enclosure, it stretched roomily, with everything to do with fishing and the sea demonstrated; there were nets and poles, hooks and things unseen; and, many items, hanging strangely. Suddenly, a big hairy man appeared; he was so well endowed with growth, it was curling down his forearms, covering visibly tattooed mermaids.
“What do ya want?” The big man spat grimly, as if one customer too many had been forced on him throughout the day.
Clary was thinking his response was unnecessary and doing little to foster business. He could hear voices in the distance, coming from behind the wall, narrowly, leaning.
“Well?”
“I’m looking for a man called Grogan,” Clary asserted.
“Because...?” queried the man, stretching syllables and raising an eye, his upper jaw, strong of teeth, and his front pearly whites wide-gapped, but his eye teeth seemingly hanging solemnly. Clary was mulling over an ungracious thought of today been bitten.
“I have come to learn to fight, and have been given an address,” Clary simplified, while remaining composed.
“How do you know this place?” asked the man, for it was not well known and something that everyone kept close to their chests. The big man’s eyes now narrowed into pig-eye slits.
“A friend of a friend,” announced Clary, reluctant to disclose the full account.
The mariner grunted a reply, looking at the newcomer squarely, before moving out through a second back door. Clary waited for a few moments; sensing more eyes watching than he thought feasible, hoping things might improve. Apart from the baker, he had not met another soul he had felt comfortable with taking home to sup. Later, learning that the excessively hairy man was called ‘The Heeb’, he was likened to a body-guard, never leaving his overseer’s side. The Heeb returned after a few short moments, his dark eyes insensitive, coolly escorting the big man in charge. He was just as large, e was just as karge
rolling in, with a step-like swagger; his green eyes flashing dominance over the room, his gaze fixing on him as if gripped. His face bore a long handlebar moustache, with dark hair neatly swished in a ponytail. His arms were eye-catching; taunt with muscle, like boughs of trees with anchors etched either side.
“What goes, that you should inquire my name?” The big man questioned with a testy growl.
“My name’s Clary McTague. I wish to learn to fight as our villages have been ambushed by forces too great for us to repel,” advanced Clary, providing a glimpse of the situation. He was feeling compelled to relay the name of the man who had sent him before the stranger allowed any hint of warmth. But when Clary described the individuals causing the problems, Grogan took particular note.
Silently, Grogan directed Clary into a large back room; it was spacious and airy, with large black boxing bags hanging daringly, with other equipment used for fitness lying around. Five others were practising a drill; sparring with their opponents with hefty jabs, then, they were countering with a series of calculated kicks. The equipment was made correctly, and padded to specification, and nothing like Clary had ever seen. There were other adults dotted around the facility as well, presumably helpers, casting a menial eye. One, a youngster, was too small to fight, but, by his mouth, one would not suspect it; he was giving an aggressive commentary, singling out one individual in particular.
Clary, compared to the rest, would have been the youngest at seventeen, with four others seemingly adult-like, leaving one other presumably older by two years.
“Get over there and see what ya made of… just remember, there’s no rules when ya life’s at stake,” Grogan was indelicately indicating, then adding words which were coldly blunt. “The first one to hit the deck’s out.”
Clary was thankful that a mat was placed handily, and had a certain degree of spring. Pairing Clary with the only other partner available, although older, was seemingly appropriate for the job, his height, not being as tall, but thick about the chest and midriff, making him look bull-like; with a flea in his ear just as irksome this would make the match a contest. He was thinking Clary had no business being there, and was out to trounce him at the earliest thumping.
The onlookers bound their hands with straggly bands of rag, which felt like thread had been pummeled one fight too many. Then, they skirted each other as if spirited, out to deliver what was required of them.
Grogan watched every passing movement, intent on accuracy and knowing every flaw.
They tussled where no one dared to dislodge them; they were seemingly even matched, and keen to relay it.
The young boy on the sideline was barracking, “Hit him in the goolies, beat him in the hocks.” The comment was hotly stirring. Surprisingly, it was not meant for Clary, but the aggressor he was contending. His opponent was now grudgingly taking stock.
“Shut it, Nat,” his stern-eyed brother censured discouragingly, keeping the commentary for a later date.
Hard-fisted they fought, both as stubborn as the other; waiting for that sudden lapse that would topple the other flat to the floor. But it didn’t arrive; but carried on, with time passing. Both bloodied in nose and dripping in sweat, they were favoring one spot to weaken, before the owner finally brought the contest to a close.
“Let that be a lesson. We take fighting seriously…and don’t forget ta use ya legs; sailors use every means at their disposal,” Grogan’s eyes were flashing, amused by the fact the young buck was not lying flattened; withstanding all the punishment dished out. He had not expected him to last that long. Grogan was feeling like he had stumbled across a natural; someone who could act quickly, picking up on faults while using them to advantage. His opponent was vindictive-looking, having long been in the industry; he also was expecting to have dusted the floor with the new arrival; as it stood, the coach was declaring it a truce, as neither was better than the other. His opponent was gifting Clary an insidious look. His nickname, Scuttle, he had a penchant for delivering many an axe through hulls of ships, having taken exception to its owner in his occupancy of thought. He paused, nearing his younger brother, giving him a hefty clip, the youngster was reeling; the action was too harsh to be called affectionate, while others did nothing.
Clary looked on annoyed; reluctant to get involved, but feeling obliged.
“Leave it,” Grogan insisted, knowing the extent and surmising it would be sorted.
Months passed swiftly. Grogan was giving Clary accommodation out back, growing to like the young champ; aware that the lad had more reserve in him than anyone thought possible. Unequivocally, Grogan showed no favoritism whatsoever; if anything, he treated the young arrival toughly. Over time, Clary proved determinably that he was a force to be reckoned with, not only beating his axe-obsessed opponent, much to his growing annoyance, but taking kick boxing to another level.
A turning point came when even Grogan noticed a change, having to pair him with the more advanced in his class to outsmart them; notably aware, Clary was using his head more than his hands, intuitively, figuring the game to an advantage, his moves tactical and noteworthy.
Clary was realizing, too, that when the not so old sea-dog barked, everyone smartened up; Grogan’s name was used with discretion about town, and revered as legendary. Suspecting him of being a ship’s captain or the like, Clary learned that what was said was Gospel with no questions asked. Dutifully following on close behind their leader was his crew of hard-liners, dedicated to the zenith of civility; conveniently, turning a blind eye to his temperament and content not to show that. Remembering, one of Grogan’s followers was saying, “On board, even pirates bowed down. They knew better than to mess with the Squire, least they suffer fire and brimstone hailing down upon their sorry carcasses.” The nick name struck suitably for those game enough to travel the same rambling sail as their Captain.
Mostly, Clary found Grogan was a character, not big on conversation, often speaking in monosyllables to avoid others, or giving a stiff grunt should he feel inclined. Many getting the gist of his intentions were too polite to do otherwise, feeling stupid if they did not, and getting a disgruntled glare should they reveal it. Out and about a crowded hall, everyone parted respectfully should Grogan approach, giving up a chair or the like; even rampant fights stopped courteously midway, as if asking permission to carry on. Generally, Grogan nodded agreement, wishing to figure out who had the more resolve. Should anyone show disrespect, they would suddenly find themselves on the sharp end of The Heeb’s lofty clip, while Grogan sat back aloof afterwards.
As time passed, Grogan began to realize that Clary needed something more, something he could not give; a refinement that would carry his talent further. He sent him to the only one who could, a mystic-like individual who resided in the rugged foothills of the high country, living ensconced, furtively below its wooded tree line; the recluse narrowly known by the name of Shoonn.
“He’ll teach you the finer points of life that only a few should know, but be wary, use them guardedly,” asserted Grogan, wishing to give back something, knowing the errors of his past were not too distant from his plunder-wracked door.
“There is only good,” Clary reciprocated, sensing, and not accepting, another point of view.
“Clary, one last thing; I shall be returning to sea shortly… for a while at least, as we do. If you should require me perchance, then the mystic will know of it.” Seemingly, Grogan now impressed upon him these words so that Clary should be made aware and it be understood.
Clary thanked him genuinely, having forged an attachment, shaking the big man’s hand, feeling it closed round his palm like a clam – and, for a fleeting moment, he had a vision it was one. He left grateful in his endeavor to develop his new-found skill; every part of him was indebted for the knowledge he had gained, and hopeful they would meet again.
Clary made his way along the windswept street; catching a glimpse of the racketeers he had first encountered, their drab locks just as lank and the slime of their tongues just as sleazy.
“I sees you are leaving, young master… let it be known the offer still stands,” Abrinthe Flue remarked speculatively, mulling implications, trying to figure out Clary’s purpose.
“A missed opportunity you will regret,” the smaller man snorted, trying to latch on to him shrewdly, not wishing to pussyfoot and not taking no for an answer. Having set the record for the most undertakings in a single year, and, not one to let anything escape, he was fiddling a trudgeon behind his back to hasten proceedings; it was something he kept comfortably down his pants. His accomplice was begrudgingly holding him back, blatantly aware they had no hope of snatching anyone in full view of others, and watchful of everything on all sides.
“You will get yours, and it will be sweet in coming.” Clary spat, watching as they scuttled into the shadows of a nearby premises, looking for further wanderers. Oggly Gumgrot loafed behind. He was clicking his tongue as though habitually irritated; this peculiarity was giving away his position, but was specific to him, as he narrowly glared.
Clary waited till they had thoroughly gone before making his way, clambering the high hilly outcrops shouldering the town’s border before venturing outward. All day, he was out there searching for the recluse he had been directed to find.
Shoonn’s elusive whereabouts was seemingly like searching for a thread in thicket; the sharp degree in elevation was worsening by the second. He was feeling strain in his hind legs as an elk scaling a mountain, taking short sharp rests to view the scenery and orientate to its verdant surrounds. The countryside was seemingly wandering endlessly, with ancient rock formations exposing its craggy clefts. Then, Clary spied it, just as Grogan had recalled, by viewing a cave-like entrance hidden in the side of foothills. It was surrounded by blackberry and thicket, unable to be discerned unless right on top. The frontage was concealed, even more so as he entered, as now the entrance was closing in from behind, revealing a channel of walls; giving little hint that it should be inhabited at all, except for an eerie sound of a distant hum. The words were adding length and breadth to their pull. Then, amazingly, a long line of soft lights emitted along its cavernous hollow. Many lights, but not like any Clary had ever seen; small glow worms were raising their delicate heads as if expecting, and aiding the way. He felt a harmonious presence, a comfort he had never experienced before; and was feeling an urge to rest in a large chamber, its ceiling as a cathedral with a star-like sprinkling emanating its presence, many hands high. There, he suddenly felt deep contentment and dozed off.
Clary awoke to a voice calling, its gentle hum rousing his wakefulness. Prepared before him was a table with a generous spread of food. There was only one seat, and it was offered to him.
“Who are you?” Clary asked alarmed, never having spoken to a ‘nothing’ before.
“Eat, drink, then after that we will teach you what you have been sent to learn,” the voice made known.
Clary dined as requested. The meal was succulent with herbs and spices he had not tasted or seen before; he fiddled with its greenery, trying to place its origins.
“All will be revealed,” a small elf-like gentleman responded calmly while reading.
The elf was draped in a robe, the gown seamless and simple, with colors depicting the same texture as the earth. The whole garment took in a hood, which covered his head entirely; but was left exposed enough to discern his ears, which were large in comparison to his sage-like head. His eyes were also a standout and daunting, like large discs. They were too dark to reveal a pupil and too mesmerizing to uncover what he may be thinking behind them, seemingly to be able to hold his gaze, even though he tried to wrench it desperately, trying not to appear rude.
“You think I’m odd looking?” the elf enquired, his fine features perusing Clary’s form.
“I never thought that,” countered Clary uncomfortably, knowing he really had. “Are you Shoonn?” Clary asked, wishing to be certain.
“I answer to many names; that is one,” the man offered, giving little relevance.
They were interrupted by muffled sniffing.
“Josie, get back to your chamber, there’s a good girl. I’ll be along shortly,” Shoonn assured the large creature warmly. All they could see was a soft, mammoth-like nose, dwelling near the corner of the hollow, slowly; its multitude of steps were now receding out of view.
“Who are you?” Clary enquired, having a sudden urge to ask.
“I am the minder of the Earth and all that resides within,” the small man declared simply, not wishing to dwell too much on the fact.
Clary felt he had to put some effort into controlling his thoughts, as he knew the Sage could read them; being able to discern matters quicker than an open book, his eyes seemingly an infinite well of intelligence. The man stared at an empty mug on the table, his sharp eyes changing to that of a lighter hue. Focusing his stare, suddenly a small waterfall appeared out of nowhere, filling the chalice without spilling; then, willing it without lifting a finger, it floated into the Sage’s idle hand. Mushrooms, too, suddenly appeared shooting out of its sides, large and robust, and ones Clary felt like sinking his incisors into – they all looked that good.
“Life sustains… even fungus,” exhorted the man, calmly sipping.
“How did you do that?”
“Control thought and all will aspire to you, and greater acts… over time,” answered the Sage, as he grew an apple seed and dropped its finished product into Clary’s hand.
No more can be said of the meeting, or what length of stay; only that it was a sacred premises not permitted to be described further. After a few short months, Clary had finished his time, thanking the presence appreciably; the small stature was now barely discernable, as though taking up the surrounds. As it moved, its color changed notably as a chameleon, but blended in more so.
“Clary, remember this; chart your course on the path of righteousness and good will continue without fading; but, be warned. Should you use your skills unjustly, all will collapse around you and much more. Don’t hate, it only enfeebles,” the Sage was letting known. “You will have to return at some stage for further enlightenment, do not be long in coming,” he asserted, as if not completely yet finished.
Spreading out before Clary as he made his way, resplendent fields of mushrooms started to grow, then genuflect, their species of various shapes and forms. He nodded gratefully, bidding The Sage farewell, making it his duty to keep in touch, learning more from the presence every passing call.
Finally, Clary trekked his long path home, hoping to avoid the untoward. Reaching it, his father greeted him with open arms. Clary was aware his welfare strayed never far from his father’s caring thoughts.
“Sorry it took so long, father. Have the villains returned?” Clary asked apologetically, hoping not, having sent descriptive messages explaining his wanderings.
“No, thank goodness. We have not had the displeasure since the time you left; however, we fear they will be soon upon us as their visits are overdue,” relayed his father distrustfully.
Clary handed his father a sack of mushrooms, for which he was most grateful.
“We must teach the villagers some of these skills, so we can prepare,” remarked Clary, keen to put into practice what he knew, aware that he could demonstrate what Grogan had taught him. But what of the skills of the mystic? Those were reserved only for one.
“I have no such inclination as you do, personally, but, you must do what you think necessary to survive,” said his father, seemingly not adverse to his way of thinking and pleased his son was home.
The townsfolk, still living in fear, had come to the conclusion that the dark one’s presence may return, and it was wise to maintain a rotating vigil, keeping in mind the observation should remain in place, and endure, throughout the day and night, distrustful of Zentoff’s motives.
The small inland community was now totally involved, whereby more than one person was on duty at any one time. The rotating roster had worked well, and the towns people, to a certain extent, could breathe easy, bringing, many such folk closer in friendship. This tactic was a calming response in the dim scheme of things; that they should be over-prepared and kept on high alert.
But more than that, the townsfolk had prepared for themselves a ‘surprise’ if required, having one draw card in their favor: the terrain where they resided was steep and formidable. This offered a degree of advantage, in that, from their elevated outpost, they could see anything that may approach from miles away.
Many more weeks elapsed, with many surmising the threat may not come. It was leaving them presumably thinking that the villains took everything last time; but still, the villagers were refusing to let down their guard so not to be fooled. Meanwhile, Clary was determined to teach many of the young, including women, some of the skills he was taught. The interval drew deep amusement from passers-by who themselves joined in. One woman in particular took grating exception, as she partnered someone too brisk with the hands she did not prefer. “Watch were ya stretch ya fingers, pillock,” she discoursed, slapping him.
“I barely touched you; you overreact like a rock cod with snapping teeth,” he scorned, as though put out.
Knowing better, she was about to give another measure before deciding otherwise.
Then, early one morning, Clary woke up to tend to the animals in his keep. He had taken with him a jovial youngster who had taken favor, and enjoyed his company immensely. They were feeding out hay stored in a nearby barn; throwing it with gusto; light-humored at the prospects the day had on offer, when, suddenly, the youth spoke up.
“Clary, look at those strange-looking insects,” he remarked, drawn to the spectacle at the bottom of the cliffs.
“Those are not bugs…that is pestilence, run!” Clary was now quickly ushering him and alerting those in the village. Others, venturing to see, were watching as the invaders swarmed en masse like a plague across the valley floor; and were then scampering up the escarpment, closing the gap.
Making haste, they hoisted a flag for all to see and sounded a low-bass horn.
“There’s so many, we cannot possibly take the risk,” the man-in-charge despaired, along with many others, who were thinking similarly.
“We have two options, to stay or fight; although, with numbers like these, I don’t fancy our chances.”
“Or, we could roll these boulders and create a divergence, thus saving us time,” gusted a suggestion, having planned them strategically at various stages, by giving another’s input.
“Or, we can leave the village now, entirely, and start anew; make it look as if we’ve been gone some while,” Hamish McTague suggested, realizing the threat’s imminence and thinking as though by stealth.
Finally, with little persuasion, the villagers all acknowledged it was futile, knowing there was only one way. Speedily, freeing animals in their keep, and scooping up what bare essentials they thought necessary, they made for a hurried exit.
They left, making a heartfelt glance back, knowing that the region was always going to be their home, the lush fields and rolling contours, drawing them; and hoping one day they may be able to return. Soberly, leaning towards optimism, they carried on.
They ventured through a long cave-like channel in rock, its formation only the hill people knew, aware the villains would not be able to find it there. They were taking with them a short train of animals dutifully following. A watercourse ran its windy length, conveniently wiping out any trace of their existence.
Two days later, and taking precious little rest, the villagers met with others having experienced the same disconcerting sequence of events, heightened by the fact they were unprepared for what was to follow.
“What happened to you, neighbor?” Si questioned, aware their village was not far off.
“They came upon us, after they could not find you, angered by the fact you weren’t there. They took all our belongings: people, cattle, then burnt everything to the ground. We could not do a thing, there were so many,” announced one individual solemnly, realizing they were lucky to escape. Thankful, one of the guards, oddly sympathetic, left a knife conveniently placed, whereby they could cut their binds, as well as save a scarce few. But inwardly, they were despairing the fact they could not release the rest, watching from safety nearby as their own folk were marshaled out.
“We are sorry for your loss, we barely had time ourselves,” said one of the group, thankful for the villagers’ watch.
“Who did this?” Si questioned, hoping to locate the cause.
“It’s always the same. A big sinister-looking thug, with a twisted smirk. They call him Zentoff.”
“Yes, we’ve had dealings… too many,” Si, concurred grimly.
“Si, we overheard things. They seem to be in collusion with others; their uniform is oddly black, and not from these parts.”
“I’ve noticed,” said Si cheerlessly, puzzled at the after-thought, knowing all would be revealed; vowing, if he could not solve it, King Reuben could.
“We heard later, the fiend does not give up easy, and is still looking for us, so, we must make haste. We’re off to Tolvic Castle. There’s a contest imminent, with archers, swords, spears and the like, and a plentiful bounty given on top,” replied the others, hoping to recoup some good fortune.
“Just up your alley,” Si remarked, giving Hamish McTague a heartfelt nod, aware of his capability with the bow.
“It would fill a void,” Si deliberated, later that day cocking a brow.
Hamish McTague barely reciprocated, knowing the contest had the potential to get them on track; the money, especially, could be put towards leasing new land and buying implements used in their line of work. Finally, deciding it was a step worth pursuing, he left his friends, taking with him his only son and his prized bow.
The rest of the villagers, knowing what was at stake, headed for the city of Cramorne, where they were amongst their own, and they knew they would be safe.
Many miles not too distant, a multitude of dark uniforms massed, scouring everything, but coming up barren.
“How can this be, they cannot have just vanished?” the leading man voiced icily, not finding tracks or anything to unravel the villagers’ escape. He had to report back to the one most fickle, so his thought-raking was sitting uncomfortably.
“But Zentoff, it is not our fault. They know this high country blindfolded; it is their home. They have accessed something we are not privy to,” replied the soldier, making excuses.
“Perhaps so, but it is in your interests to find them if ya want to keep your head.” Zentoff’s shot him a severe glance. There were daggers in the hanging words that had escaped from his black-bearded mouth. He bunched his bull-like shoulders in thoughtful irritance, and waved the other away.
The guard scowled, knowing he was doing his best, getting on his mount to seek, aware that his master had a voracious need for laborers, and hoping not to become one.
Further inland, and many miles distant, Clary and his father took respite from their long journey, having a much-needed break near an isolated cliff top. Clary, scaling the rest, looked towards a region in the far distance. He spied rugged peaks, rolling into fertile fields of lazy green, spreading out before him. He inhaled the crisp highland air; it was sweet with the bite of snowclad, blanketed in the mountains to the further north. He stretched, reaching for the sky, then called harmoniously, the pleasantry bouncing from one rocky promontory into the distance with nothing to prevent its call.
In a while, he joined his father. The pair sat mulling around a camp fire he had prepared, their gaze drawing them westward, towards a region they intended to approach the next day.
Clary lay back vaguely comforted. “Father, you do not have to do this.” The thought of his father’s future actions, he felt, were off-putting, and he was not knowing what to expect.
“It is with reservation, but I assure you, it is highly necessary,” Hamish exclaimed. He had not given to hearsay and was aware his people were in need of uplifting. The money, especially, could be put to use.
“Not if it takes your life. I know how uncivilized these people are,” Clary answered.
His father barely smiled. “Do you not see, it is not the people who are misguided; it is the ones who rule. Besides, the fact is, I would consider Schleem on worse standing.”
“It is just, it has a different chime, somehow,” Clary maintained, not convinced, that having escaped from their assailants, they would still be searching their whereabouts, and thinking more.
“Son, there is famine throughout the land, and many are starving. If we could win this, it would ensure our village would prosper entirely. You know how good I am with the arrow, as your ancestors were before me.” Hamish was trying to impress on him something hidden in the past, but he was not quite ready to reveal it.
The lad pondered, thinking Hamish could not be punished for doing rightfully; however, the reputation of the principality defied his thinking.
The next day Hamish McTague and his son ventured upon the ancient lands of Tolvic Castle, the dark milled stone sitting gloomily blocked. Some of the outer wall and battlement was crumbling and in need of repair.
In nearby fields, the dark grey of the King’s Guard presided with a black-strapped whip in hand. Barking disagreeably, and snapping it willfully, they were forcing upon the townsfolk restrictions and willing them to comply. Many children looked on with labor weariness as the father and son arrived. They had been forced to endure lengthy hours in the fields with little sustenance given in exchange.
Suddenly, a young boy fronted the guards defiantly, his lean frame urchin-like. On his milk-chocolate skin, old grazes presented, where the lash had wrapped its spiny barb round his skinny legs. He chided verbosely, side-stepping another lash stroke as it crazed the earth. He sprinted, stricken, sighting the frill of the woods with an arbor of bushy cover not too far. Many joined the pursuit, with some on horseback following closely. Over blocked wall and snatching thicket he rushed; through corn fields, long with stem and lush with harvest, he plowed, a movement only giving away his presence. Through scratchy briar with clawing thatch, a hostile eye hounded him. He stumbled, quickly regaining momentum, provoked too numerously to be called a one-off, the brunt of jokes frequently stirred. Then, seizing his opportunity, he dived amidst dangly reed with long grasses; his heart was pounding inside his chest, hopeful of an outcome.
Seeing this occurrence, Hamish and Clary stopped abruptly, so close to him; they could speculate over the color of his eyes. They could hear his name spurned by many, but loved by few.
“Come out, Ramole, or your gizzard won’t be the better for it,” a beefy guard rankled; a large hook nose, was making him look more harming.
The lad remained still; the history between the guards and himself doing little to foster calm.
Keen-eyed, they gouged the undergrowth, delving with twisted blades, thrashing left and right.
“Have you seen a boy?” The horseman’s face was crazed like clay, and the words spoken like crushed glass.
“Not a thing,” Hamish repulsed, more as a rebuke than an answer; assertively he moved on.
“Ya must have seen something; he was right here!” the rider insisted, now focusing on Clary.
“You must be short for things to do?” Clary admitted brazenly.
The guard, glared at him. “If it was not for the competition today, I would have you take his place.”
Clary’s father called him, offering a reproving eye. He could feel the sentry’s gaze latching to them like a jag.
The two then passed over a drawbridge linking the castle’s main entrance, looking down at an inky moat encompassing its surrounds. Its high-walled embankment was near vertical in places. The thought made Clary surmise that anyone falling in it would not survive the experience coming out. They traveled inward, with people skittish before them, glancing up, then scuttling away; some were peering through gapped doors and dirt-paned windows, or elsewhere given to seeking cover.
Flags flew on high battlements and along main thoroughfares; even shop frontages displayed the black and gold to which the region was renowned, emblazoned with the emblem of a ferret curled about a stretch of briar. The atmosphere was bristling, as though something else was underpinning celebrations there.
Clary dropped a coin in a beggar’s plate along the way. The hooded woman was raising a sage-like eye, and nodded mindfully. “Take the left fork in the road. They will not be able to discern you from there,” the woman suggested, quietly reading, then slipping into the crowd like a woodworm.
“Thank you sister,” said Clary, after casting a thoughtful glance, then uttering, “we’ve just entered the ‘creature’s’ jaws, and are yet to experience its incisors.” They were giving each other a furtive nod, but none too calming.
“There is another realm… that makes this look… decidedly tame,” Clary’s father lamented, loathe to admit it; but the notion was one he had long harbored.
“Which is?” asked Clary, thinking the situation could not get any worse.
“We have enough to contemplate for now, let that be the focus,” his father resumed smartly, not wishing to elaborate.
They passed by some men in stocks, watched over by an insensitive guard who observed their every movement. Their carriage was demeaned by those attending, having thrown food scraps; the sentences appearing trivial. The families of those forced to watch were languishing in the torment, as more passed by, the spectacle put there as a deterrent to others, not to follow similar lines. Waiting their turn were another six of both gender and one child, all fettered by the same lead.
“Move on, you miserable wretches, or you’ll end up broken… or worse,” one of the sentries declared; he was waving a sword in the air, and was now briskly focusing on the two passing by.
Hamish McTague frowned inwardly. One of the men was barely able to raise his head. He smiled mildly, catching the former’s eye. Hamish acknowledged him, as though torn, for he knew him well, knowing he was a man of honor – who had sorted justice fairly.
They continued on through the main thoroughfare, noticing many residents in their travel, their gazes forlorn and clothes worn to excesses of respectfulness. They were directed onto an open field, many guards inhabiting sidelines and battle-hardened walls, as though the event was an intrusion by way of its existence, and they were readying themselves for an onslaught.
A barrage of trumpets rang out, one out of tune, as many prepared. Some events were already under full sway as large crowds congregated. Many slick-looking punters were taking particular note, gazing around furtively, looking to cash in on the much anticipated event, while others out there were thinking along similar lines.
Did they work for the King also? Clary was mulling over the circumstances, feeling more eyes watching than he thought conceivable. “Seems the theatre has set the stage, and we are upon it,” Clary quipped.
“Stay close, and do not speak out of turn,” Hamish was sensing it similarly, but not wishing to bring uninvited attention upon themselves.
Five pouches of gold hung fat with bulges, captivating those present, luring the best archers, jousts, and swordsman alike. The competitions were grueling, as times were tough and many were in need of takings. Other sports were also incorporated in the fold as the King knew it could only foster demand.
Presiding over proceedings, King Claremont lazily reclined himself. His stubby figure was drawing dissension in his regal booth; he yawned to excess of sophistication, swigging refreshments of the regions’ renown. His thick neck was swathed in jewels and gold, not obtained by his own achievements, but handed down. He was barely giving them any attention. Surrounding him, an elect group of confidants mulled; at his flank, a dark outline could scarcely be seen, the figure whispering incessantly, so no one else could hear.
Out on an open field, many swordsmen exhibited challenges, some injured by those taking things too far, with seemingly little regard for rules; or, authority too weak to implement them. Many of the crowd was unimpressed with the outcome, but too frightened to do otherwise. One in particular was catching Clary’s eye; a slightly built girl, with skill beyond exemplary, fashioning strokes with flair. She was becoming a favorite, by using a new style of skill he was unaware of but not so you would know. Realizing it was the woman from his township who had first been taken, some while ago; Clary offered a glint of recognition as she battled on.
They travelled on loath to get involved as Clary’s father had only entered in the archery; the contest was the best of three, taking in the short to long courses.
Finally, his father’s name was read out, as it was his turn to front up. He tempered his steps; his lean stride and valued bow unwavering in his hand. The item was carved from a sampling he had nurtured in the forest, meticulously taking time to optimize its effect over a period. Slowly, intently, he pulled back the arrow, freezing the moment in perpetuity; searching the heavens above, before synchronizing its release; the head of the shaft was sailing precisely, sinking into the target many distant lengths.
Clary knew no other marksman he had encountered in his life was as astute or as discerning as his honorable father. He was a shamefully modest man, not normally found to entertain such events; however, circumstances were now prevailing.
It was the same outcome with the second and the third event, and the fourth and fifth; the competitors were humble men, many coming from common backgrounds, shaking his father’s hand for the effort. Hamish was now destined to meet with the title holder, a man reputed for his dark dealings, and who was the overseer of the regiment itself.
Watching from a knoll with dour propensity and inalienable suspicions, the dark lord appeared. His friend and confidant, standing alongside him was commenting, “He seems a force to be reckoned, ma lord.” The title holder was scratching a closely-cropped beard, noticing Hamish McTague had taken out the competitions and stealing hearts along the way.
“You read into things too much, Fez,” Scarth snipped, the side of his stubble twitching deviously, his powerfully-built frame formidable and unwavering.
It was mid-afternoon on the second day and spectators bustled, as it was the final; and word had spread. The crowd pressed together to improve their outlook. No one in their history had taken out the entire field as this quietly-spoken, gentle stranger had succeeded.
More measurers were brought. Officials were employed to ascertain the exactness of the delivery, before relaying the result was their duty. They gathered ill at ease knowing, if they sided wrongly, their livelihoods would be at stake.
The swordswoman, too, whom Clary had seen previously, had progressed to the finals. She stood pensively, waiting for her name to be read out; her long pants and short-cropped hair unreadable.
There were stirrings at the castle gate, impatient and ominous, as a large contingent of black uniformed foreigners appeared, their leader in a blighted mood, having not achieved what he had set out to do. The sentries at the entrance, all too familiar with the mercenaries, parted hesitantly; the chill of the surge mingling with the ever-increasing numbers of those congregating.
Back on the fields, a line of trumpeters were called to order, giving a brief blast on their long-horned brass, allowing contestants to ready themselves, pending the finals.
In the archery, the dark overseer took precedence, having dominated the event over a number of years; he had consistently taken out the trophy on offer, and now felt like he owned it. His dark wavy hair complemented his black leather garments; cynically, he stood viewing events. On his cheek he was revealing an ugly scar.
The other contestant was a tall blond-headed man, his raiment loose about his midriff, as if one of the ploughmen of the fields. He acknowledged his son standing near, a lean adolescent with the same towel-fair hair, before continuing to take up his position at the archery fields.
Scarth glared at his adversary, as though wishing to convey an impression. “You win and it will be death by measures.” The words were whipping and he was taking umbrage to any likely challenge.
Hamish McTague stood soberly – allowing the insults to slip by. He had met others like Scarth in his life time, and was finding all them tainted with a similar brush – treacherous and willful – and he never turned a blind eye to circumstances prevailing. “Your errors have taken hold and now you are expressing them,” Hamish countered icily.
Scarth scowled, “What nonsense is this?” He was now spitting something out he had been chewing.
“To you, maybe, but not to the one in charge.” Hamish was looking higher for help, and revered Life for all the goodness it had bestowed.
“It is not you who should be concerned.” Suddenly, he was now fixing his eyes on his son. If anyone dared to rival him, he was making sure they succumbed.
Hamish McTague could feel hot-blooded annoyance surge. He was fighting to remain calm, taking seriously any claim to threaten, especially his clan.
Scarth randomly selected a coin, having been given a choice from a set of two; he deliberated before choosing one with an ancient surface. It was flicked high in the air by an official; his dab hand spinning it on its axis before finding rest on open ground. He grimaced at the sudden prospect; the result was forcing him to contend first. He threw off his cloak, obsessing in a display of orderliness, before finally taking up arms. The bow was now held in the hands of a master, as everything around him quelled. Even the birds in the trees seemed to avail respectfulness, or, were too scared to do otherwise. Handing him his arrow, nested on a pillow, a swarthy youth bowed courteously, having arranged a selection in order of sequence, giving him options from a choice of three; momentarily forgetting which order of importance to exact, the lighter or the heavier weapon, his movements were tremulous and Scarth swiped him for being inept.
“Incompetence…You know which one,” Scarth chided, abruptly seizing upon the lad’s dread, as he was cowering at the reception he would likely receive later.
Clary looked on sympathetically, while the youth cast a submissive gaze.
Scarth fingered the arrow’s vein carefully; the tip of the projectile was pointed-lethal in sharpness, its red fletching identifying its maker. He breathed inwardly; holding the weapon on the brink before engaging, the shaft leaving his hold as if slicing the airwaves in two. He stood back scrupulously, viewing its mark; it embedded just to the right of centre.
Hamish McTague fronted warily, not a man easily roused; however, any threat to his family ignited a distant memory that had been once thought buried. He brushed back his golden locks before plucking the string, strategically, mulling a moment, before allowing the arrow to leave its stay. The action was forthright, contacting the target further left.
“Pity,” Scarth sniped, not meaning a word of it.
“Father… for the life of me I have never seen you fail,” Clary uttered in disbelief, assuming stress was taking its toll.
“Just the glaze… the topping is yet to come,” he returned, his countenance wooden.
“One nil… to ma lord,” the measurers conveyed, mildly comforted.
Scarth scowled, a cruel twist to his mouth, preparing for the mid-range target, bolstered by the fact he had only another two marks to effect. The same servant presented the next specimen, cautiously genuflecting, handing him the arrow he was expecting, cushioned; he grunted disagreeably, thinking little of it. He stepped forward, drawing out the occasion as though it was a favorite pastime. He etched his footing in the soft alluvial earth before focusing higher, holding his aim steady before releasing; the swish of the arrow could be heard as it sliced further, contacting the mid-range target nearly square. He gloated, satisfied; it too, was difficult to contest.
“Luck is… siding well, and appropriate for what I intend,” Scarth sniped.
Hamish ignored him, maintaining his composure, the blond taking time to remedy his aim, focusing his arrow in an effort to exact it, before releasing; he was watching as it sailed into the smooth distance, fixing on the centre board.
The measurers looked on in nervous disbelief, for Scarth was a hard man and they were unable to disguise the fact.
“The favor is with… Mister…err… McTague,” they announced, quibbling apprehensively. “One all,” they called, defining the matter.
Scarth’s face was stony as storms were emanating under his eye lids as the words were bitterly received. More spectators gathered, as now word had spread and many wished to see the outcome.
“Unlucky, my lord,” Fez confided, inwardly amused, but daring not reveal it. Sitting beside him was his faithful wolfhound, of a kindly disposition, casually resting its length.
Scarth raised his lip to it testily; the action having the animal snarl back, showing its deep-rooted incisors in pink-flecked gums. The ragged edges of Scarth’s scar was looking embittered, as though taking out his frustrations were commonplace.
“He hates that,” Fez discouraged, not one normally to comment, but protecting his precious pup was something he felt obliged to speak.
“It needs toughening.” The words were not tame nor meant to be, as his mind was on the game.
“He’s perfect as he is,” Fez reminded, adamant his precious pooch should be left alone. Fez was conscious of the fact that the only animal Scarth admired was something that terminated everything else; in particular, a wild boar, for its ability to topple a cart, which had just recently been proven.
Scarth was aware he was the only one Fez’s dog took exception to, and was now narrowly focusing his attention back on his adversary. “If you care for the boy, you’ll drop it now,” Scarth maligned. His badgering was so much so, that an events judge, a man by the name of Maradin, was asked to intervene.
“Let the contestants take their shot, as per fairness to the rules of play,” the man remarked, formally objecting.
“Maradin… it is unwise of you to flout your rules so boldly… I would hate to think what may happen,” Scarth revealed; he was seemingly in a perpetual state of crankiness.
“You must remember, it is with good these people come to participate in these events. If you harass them unduly, next year you may find none.” Maradin responded, aware of economic uncertainties for the region, especially Claremont’s penchant for collection.
Scarth ignored the events judge’s impertinence; as always, he was only concerned with one – namely himself.
Hamish acknowledged Maradin appreciably, thankful someone was game enough to speak out; Scarth was seemingly like a hornet, driven.
Willfully, Scarth advanced to take the last shot; the target was set further, many times more difficult than previously encountered. He eyed it decisively, before setting his arrow further into the distance; plucking the string skyward; holding its direction fiercely, he waited a few moments before firing. The head was whistling at elevation, proceeding in an arc before striking close to the middle board flimsily, its accuracy undeniable. Scarth was pondering it smugly, thinking it was unbeatable.
Hamish McTague ventured up to take his turn, pulling out small leaves from out of a side pocket in his pants. He watched as he let them go, allowing the breeze to take them.
“Remember, what is at stake,” the dark one implied; testimonies regarding his endeavors were frequently displayed, so much so, Hamish knew better than to underrate him.
“Pitiless… Your thought has bound you, and now you are playing it out.” Hamish renounced.
Scarth glared at him a narrowing look. No civilian that he knew had the hide to fire something his way, as this unknown fieldworker had brashly undertaken.
Hamish McTague pushed the incident aside, aware it was far from trivial; before flexing the string of his bow; the solid-weighted arrow was hewn from the best material he could ensure, and was handcrafted-precisely. White plumage on its fletching gave rise to its rare ownership, generously donated by birds of a unique breed. He nocked his arrow and then steadied his aim, looking upward at the fluffy cumulous on high, feeling more eyes were watching than he thought conceivable; a gentle breeze feathering the line of his face, locking in his gaze before releasing his weapon. The arrow forced higher into the wind tunnels, as though he was the mere instrument, and something else was causing its delivery. Then, it could not be seen momentarily; having others surmise the aim had wandered too far, or perhaps that, something had mysteriously caught it in its fist, rolling it around in its heavenly grip, before allowing it on its downward path. But again, suddenly, it came back into view, before it was heard to hit the target with a hefty thud. The arrow incorporated the centre ring firmly implanted, knocking the other contender ground-ward.
Maradin inspected the delivery with interest, and then with dismay, as he revealed that the thunderous arrowhead had penetrated its tip through the solid wood target, he touching it with his finger in awe. Never before had he seen an arrow connect its target with such magnitude.
There was deathly silence, like a gulf of dread hanging suspended, as no one dared speak; not to someone who had just trounced the King’s finest; a man revered for his skill, and, a man having wider powers than the King himself.
The crowd stiffened, the measurers deadened in silence as anger surged in a man rife with temper, as he was mulling on the circumstances sharply. Only one was condoning his manner, although he was too frightened to do otherwise; even he moderated his tone, knowing the price of culpability.
The official cautiously read out the victor’s name, not taking his eyes off him, and dubiously handing the archer’s prize. “Friend; it is in your interests to take a spirited leave, and do not look back,” the organizer advised, reluctant to display his true feelings for fear of reprisals, realizing he would have no show, and no one else to support him.
“I see what you mean,” Hamish McTague replied, sensing the gravity of the situation and hastening his son alongside.
Hamish McTague turned his back, having barely strolled a few paces, when the barbarous wing tip of an arrow sliced his ear. He staggered, gripping the blood-soaked auricle, pained.
“Get some horses, Clary,” Hamish whipped, spinning around to see.
Scarth stood there, bow in hand. “We shall meet, again… of that I am certain,” he remarked. He had a penchant for taking things to the ultimate and not forgetting a jot of it. His long-time friend and confidant remained near, knowing better than to stir; aware with a man like Scarth, he had to be on his toes, and never giving in to weakness, something he knew Scarth would never condone.
“Bold move, my lord,” the assistant brushed lightly, knowing better than to say otherwise.
As a raptor searching its prey, Scarth continued to watch their movements hungrily.
The crowd watched on, for to speak out would only attract death or hardship; even worse, a grave risk to their families.
Hamish McTague was a noble man, spending most of his days sourcing supplies for the nearby principality of Cramorne; the King of that province was a kindly man, renowned for his generosity and kindness. He hoisted himself into the saddle of one of a couple of horses Clary had procured, loathe to confront him; there were too many variables to consider otherwise; with an even darker presence suddenly emerging on the fields, its massed gathering making others at the contest quake in their boots.
“I’ll take out his entrails and gizzard from here,” Clary hotly advised, expressing his sentiments and raising his bow from there. But his father put his hand on its frame, and firmly said about his sons’ ear…“Not the time or place…with experience comes advantage; you must refrain from wishing to fight all and sundry.” Hamish knew the lad possessed the same serious armament, having been schooled in the art. But, before he left, the lad raised a finger, stretching his arm forthrightly and aggressively while catching Scarth’s eye.
“A hex on you, may it come back to devour,” the youth asserted, not taking his eyes off the villain of the hour.
There was incendiary in Scarth’s dark eyes and he glared his way. “Make sure they do not get past the gate. I’ll see to them personally,” he bellowed as the pair departed the scene.
King Claremont looked on unamused. Scarth, in his mind, could do no wrong. “The hide of those peasants; absconding with my purse. King Reuben should put a dampener on such impertinence,” King Claremont reproved, pig-eyed, at the mention of King Reuben or his principality; the richness of his Kingdom and fertile pastoral lands was making him envious, feeling a deep inclination to snatch some of its scenic boarder, if not all.
On briskly arriving, Zentoff left to seek King Claremont, to offer him a flea in his unsavory lug, realizing the information they had received was not accurate; but not before relaying, “Let no one leave here who does not reside. We may have found our lost sheep we have been searching for.” Zentoff’s thought was intolerably distracted. His man-in-charge nodded mindfully, uncomfortable with the present arrangement, instructing others to adhere to the utmost; waiting for events to scale down before corralling anyone; and putting a dampener among all those present.
The pair left the way they had come, down a narrow cobbled way, passing the same unfortunate dissidents they encountered previously. Hamish glanced down with pity at their misfortune. The same man raised his head in despondence, as a guard waved them on with a brisk hand, the incident drawing repulse from a man gentle with compassion. “There’s something… underlying that I haven’t put my finger on, quite yet?” Hamish was viewing locals peering from doorways, then scurrying away perturbed. A skeleton staff presided at the square; the mainstay having been convened to the fields to minister to the multitude, and deal with the others nearby.
“By the looks of it, it never was right,” Clary responded, having a charitable regard for those persecuted.
His father was selecting a moment; he booted one of the guards, his horse high-stepping around them, while his son knocked off the padlocks of the stocks which encumbered the few, while slicing the cord of those remaining. The captives flurried to an exit, and then fled down the narrow ways. The guards, livening their chase until they realized it was futile, refocused their efforts on the instigators, as they distanced themselves beyond their control. Then, one of the unencumbered looked back, grateful for his release, while intensely-faced sentries lamented the result.
Clary threw a sovereign from out of his pouch – an escapee catching it in his paw.
“Remember my face,” the fair bearded man verbalized, in a foreign diction; his arms were expressing gratitude, as he was bowing before them, and then taking flight.
They neared the gates of the castle, the entry point to which they had arrived; the soft meadows and rolling hills beaconing through a framed outlook onto the square; inside it, an influx of black-suited soldiers congregated, their gaze dour; looking for those who did not belong, stopping servants, noblemen and the like, with no one allowed through. Most villagers were rounded up, amid a sea of despair.
Clary’s father stopped to scribble something; he was giving thought to the exercise before submitting it to paper. He was chuckling at the messages he had concocted.
“A precarious moment, yet I fail to see the humor.” Clary was watching his father closely and thinking there was little way out; the flow-on of guards was seemingly growing by the minute.
“Think on your feet ma lad… Life liberates.” His father was looking at a bigger picture than he could make out.
Clary peered around a corner. “There must be another way, that does not include an army in pursuit?” He patted his mount soothingly, and then had it reverse its steps.
“Remain vacuous, and do not speak a word,” his father indicated sternly, twiddling the note he had concocted between a thumb and forefinger before lazily fronting those in charge.
“State your business and your purpose, in order of sequence, and make it brisk,” a sentry demanded, his keen eye gliding over them, his weaponry hung lethally in the sun.
“Local farmer… out to deliver produce. The note confirms my function and employer,” Hamish asserted, handing it to him and gazing at him squarely.
The guard arched his eyebrows distastefully; with the note baring Zentoff’s signature boldly displayed, he did not believe a word of it. “Stand aside, so we can confirm your validity,” the sentry brashly responded.
“That is okay; it is your head.” Hamish’s response was curt, and focusing his attention sharply.
The statement made the sentry cringe, as Zentoff’s previous words were lingering in his ear.
The guard looked the lad up and down, disbelieving.
“My son; it takes more than one pair of hands to run a farm you know. I will let Zentoff know you were instrumental in delaying his sprouts.”
The sentry waved them off stiffly, watching icily, as they crossed the drawbridge; leisurely, unaffected, they continued on their way, not daring to look back.
“How did you know?” Clary whispered, awake to the bluff.
“The signature, I was privy to, while his master was on one of his black visits; the sprouts, I have no idea… Life is inventive, thank God,” Hamish explained, giving credence to his faith.
Many soldiers remained on lookout in the fields as the two approached, the golden husks of corn presenting ripe for harvest. Having numerous locals out picking the great crop, folk were sorting the cobs into large wicker baskets, then slinging its bulk over their shoulders to transport; and groaning over its weight, with the same dispassionate guards blustering alongside them.
The pair moved on attentively. Clary was viewing the undergrowth for the same little waif he had first encountered; wondering what had become of him, coming across the same crush of vegetation as before and hoping he had made it, but knowing he had not; and realizing the child was too frightened to do more. He glanced briefly at the same warm pair of brown eyes gazing back, mulling over his fate innocently. He drew a water bottle and some bread, and while no one was watching, dropped it absently; the child seized upon it, guzzling its contents and eating ravenously. They then waited, as if to take refreshment, pondering their next moves.
Then, they thought of something; something that would not alert the guard to the youth’s whereabouts. All of the sentries were positioned on the left of their horses with no direct view to the right. Hamish, had his answer; furtively encouraging the child upon his horse, holding his small frame horizontally like a board. The straps of his saddle were taking most of the drag while balancing him like a featherweight; then, they meandered their way unassumingly, while the overseers remained uninformed.
One year on; things had not changed for the Principality of Tolvic, with the same obnoxious King ruling. The townsfolk were no better off as they moved around the ancient castle with trepidation, and furtive glances – more so, consoling each other on a daily basis.
The dark presence that had entered the gates at the time of the tournament was now a frequent guest, and they honed in on the establishment as though they owned it. King Claremont was weak-kneed at their growing numbers and was now bowing down to their requests.
 

CHAPTER 2
In another Kingdom not so distant, a scribe sat engrossed in his paperwork; his small stature turning the leaves of an ancient manuscript; fingering the pages with studious care, then meticulously turning the parchment back. Displayed on his pad was scribbled notation. On hearing someone approach, he hid the writings in his loose-sleeved tunic, the large hollow concealing the papyrus in a speedy maneuver.
“You seem unduly testy, Gamut,” a man in soldier’s attire observed suspiciously. He appeared disproportionate; with a wide upper chest compartment and a smaller lower frame to support it.
“Oh… it’s only you, Haig,” Gamut grumbled, twisting his mouth, contemptuously. He always was appearing when least expected and was disconcertingly unwanted.
“Whatever you are doing, make sure it is done properly,” the sentry remarked, as if he was his foot stool and his position was granting himself in charge. He dragged his oaf-like feet, sensing something was amiss, and casting a wary eye before leaving.
Gamut gazed back distrustfully as if it did not wash, as though the man was a pest to be pleasurably squashed.
Another, in the same room, a girl-like scribe, too, flicked a discourteous glance, unobserved; the man was seemingly sneaking up out of habit, seeking those blameworthy, and testing their watchfulness.
Later that day, in the chambers of King Reuben…
“Word has it, King Claremont’s building up an armory, Sire,” one of King Reuben’s noblemen relayed, his brow fixed; the growing rift between the principalities was gaining momentum. The city of Cramorne was flush with abundance, its township a bustling hub of life and commerce, while, west of its location, and inland, the townsfolk of Tolvic starved. The people of the principality were worn down by a King with little compassion; enforcing on them a need, and an excise on anything not taped down, his coffers bulging.
“Vincent, it is not our business to interfere in another’s affairs,” King Reuben refuted, not in the mood for discussion, however, not oblivious to happenings in the region.
“But Sire, would it not be wise to prepare ourselves, least that way we will be ready should something erupt?” Pressed for action, Vincent was convinced Claremont’s focus was on them.
“We have more in stock than you can imagine, and a larger skilled force to draw on,” the good King remarked, not entirely finding the information credible.
“His men have a reputation for ruthlessness; they cannot be trusted, and some say they have an ally of whom we are unaware,” Vincent persisted; it was not in his nature to let go, and he stubbornly decided against it.
“Keep watch, least that way we will know what progresses,” the King expressed, placing a caring hand on his friend’s shoulder.
King Reuben was a thoughtful man, waving taxes for those struggling to make ends meet, supplying food and firewood for the needy; and conversing with locals on his daily strolls around the kingdom. His favorite entertainment were games full of sport; where dexterity was displayed to the utmost accuracy; the festivities held annually, generating much interest for the much-revered principality. He was also far-sighted, encouraging markets and merchandise from distant lands, so his people could benefit from innovations of the times. But, King Reuben was becoming older. He knew it was drawing near the period in which he needed to take a wife and produce an heir, so he decided to start looking for a partner in whom he could share his future. He did not look far before discovering a fair maiden, her hair dark with ringlets, her eyes as black as bottomless wells, her name: An Hedra.
But An Hedra had a secret, darkly thirsting for expensive chattels that a regal position may only bring. She was as calculating as King Reuben was kind and wherever the King turned up, so did she.
The King wondered why other ladies of the court were not flocking to his call, when he was seemingly such a respected catch. But An Hedra had tricked them, luring them to an isolated part of the castle, then locking them away; and paying one of the guards to keep them entombed.
Strongly adverse, and, totally against the union, two of his faithful colleagues argued earnestly, but the King was besotted with the dark damsel, eventually marrying her, totally taken in; all the while he was unsuspecting. Events were harmonious in the first few weeks, but rapidly declined when the King heard a guard and herself conversing.
“My plan is running to schedule. I shall soon have the King’s wealth and preside over all,” remarked An Hedra, keen to capitalize on her good fortune, and now showing her hand. She was a masterful apothecary, and knew many herbs that graced their lands. This had her thinking deeply and at length, how to extend her reign but not share it.
“But, my lady, aren’t you being a little presumptuous? After all, he is the man who states the rules,” Haig blabbered, tugging at his shirt collar repeatedly, unable to relieve the flush about his neck or hide his nervousness entirely.
“Time is a wonderful leveler, and gives me reasons to think,” replied the damsel, conspiring else wise. She back stepped quickly in the privacy of her chambers, in order to be alone.
Alarmed, the King slumped, while discretely exiting unnoticed.
An Hedra was barren. She did not want children or care to have any, a matter she kept hidden. After a while, the other ladies of the court suddenly appeared, advising the king of what had occurred; how they had been duped and detained, their annoyance fueling further doubt.
Burdened with concern, and looking for quick answers, the King sipped on a goblet of his favorite wine, but it tasted odd and he now looked at it with horrified wonder. Clutching his chest he hastily summoned his legal aide to his side, to have the Queen imprisoned and her name annulled from the marriage record; and stipulating that his inheritance be kept safe in the Reuben family for the sake of the Kingdom. The document was then locked securely in the Royal Chamber for safekeeping, and a record kept with his legal adviser; a trusty servant who had been in his employment for a number of years, a man known by the name of Gamut.
To everyone’s surprise, the old King passed on unexpectedly.
On hearing the news, Haig crept stealthily along a dimly-lit corridor, a ring of long-necked keys clutched firmly in his hand. He approached the dungeon with trepidation; the stale air making him gasp repugnantly, as a mangy-haired rodent scuttled along its descent. The doors to confinement were thickly steeled, incarcerating those securely who had breached the line. It was meal time, and no one stirred at the entry. Fumbling the attachment, he unlocked one of the bulky encumbrances that led him midway into its belly, with an all-consuming urgency to pee.
“An Hedra, are you there?” he squeaked, pasty-faced in earnest.
“Why the delay?” she chided, dragging him in.
“Shhhh,” he grated, his gut writhing to capacity, making him appear more nauseous being there. “The King’s dead, and they intend changing details of the will,” Haig blurted, barely able to contain himself.
“How apt; then we must work fast.” An Hedra’s response was staid, barely causing a reaction. Haig was puzzeled by her reaction, as to him, the Kings death came as quite a shock.
Smart-footed, they exited the lock up, forcing entry into the Royal Chamber, with barely anyone present to account for their actions. Between herself and Haig, overtime, they had been able to hear snatched pieces of conversations, and now they knew precisely where to look.
“Just what is required,” An Hedra gloated, as she unlatched a hidden cubboard behind a bookself, it housing the royal document, then she fast fingered the necessary paperwork. She seemed to know exactly what to do, dexterously altering details on the papyrus, then applying the Royal Seal to add validity. “That ought to cause a stir, and a change of direction,” she scoffed, patting Haig on his crooked back, then stuffing the original down the cleavage of her open-necked bodice.
“With reason, my lady,” Haig smirked through yellow-stained teeth, scarcely disbelieving what she had done.
The next day the Head Scribe found the by-now tampered parchment.
“No!” he grimaced; “This cannot be,” His brow appeared wrinkled with despair, searching the original, but only finding an altered copy. Gamut tried to annul the will with all its variables, but having the Royal Seal imprinted upon it was a defining act.
The King wanted all his wealth to pass to his young nephew, Thom Reuben, an honorable lad, who loved his family and thought highly of his much-respected uncle.
Not to be undone, and, hoping to prove an inconsistency of fact, Gamut headed a legal team, devout in having the will overturned, and An Hedra ousted; but the Queen was perceptive, finally stowing the document away so no one could find it. The scribe was incensed; he could not do anything without a thorough inspection of the original to prove it inauthentic and to supplant the real one.
Later that week, the whole principality turned out to offer condolences and mourn their loss. There was an eerie silence as the King’s bier passed with eight white horses motioning the royal carriage, with a royal escort at both ends of the transport. Caring well-wishers bowed down, many throwing flowers and rose petals as the funeral procession proceeded along the hallowed streets and promenades; the top, knee high in floral arrangements, with excesses spilling over onto the cobbled pavement.
The Queen sat in her royal transport, her long black dress overflowing its fabric, showing little emotion beneath an inky net, while her devout guard, Haig, sat alongside; he was dripping in decoration and grinning to excess.
Thom Reuben was barely twelve years of age at the passing of his uncle, yet remembering the ordeal well, as he rode in a carriage alongside his mother, her eyes puffy and reddened; and covering her face was a white veil, handcrafted with delicate pink roses; respectfully, they followed on.
Crowds massed along road verges in numbed silence, saddened by their loss and fearful of matters to come; the day seemingly had weighed heavily.
Not long after the King’s passing, strange occurrences started happening in the region.
The greedy Queen, now aware of her position, flexed her might, hand picking a group of like-minded folk to act on her behalf. The guards were merciless mercenaries, delighting in implementing her ways; and intent on throwing hard-working folk off their lands. Property titles, which had been entrusted to families for generations, were suddenly rendered void, and then confiscated. Crime escalated as the Queen further pressured those reluctant to leave; many spiraling towards poverty and soon destitute with nowhere to go. Adding to the villages’ woes, townsfolk were forced to work long hours in the fields, while land taxes were hiked beyond a point achievable. Bleakness inhabited the principality in the reign of the cruel Monarch as her reach was spreading into the unknown.
As time passed, events only worsened, the residents hoping to draw the least amount of attention feasible, so they were not one of a growing number taken in the middle of the night; screams of those could be heard, while many were never seen again.
As years rolled away, little, if anything, could be proven as no documentation could be uncovered. Thom Reuben was in his twenties by now, having married a loving woman by the name of Hannah, and fathering a beautiful daughter named Rosie, who was all of six years.
 
Even he was having his share of problems. He had lost his mother unexpectedly in a carriage accident and was deeply grieved by the loss. The body of the transport was found down a precipice, with none of those sent to protect her in sight; even the animals were found unhitched. The only other evidence was a large circle of hooves scored sinisterly in the earth. The incident was barbing, and leaving a gulf of suspicion around its circumstance. Thom Reuben was close to his mother; a gentle woman, who would harm no one; he was spending sleepless nights surmising possibilities; and looking for facts amongst a draught of many; questioning numerous folk in the vicinity, but coming up with nothing. It was as though the incident was planned; Thom Reuben was aware someone knew something and he was going to find out.
“Please, Sire… it’s time to go,” one of his sentries coaxed gently, trying not to show concern.
“I will seek them if it takes me to the bowels of Hades… and then I will not stop,” Thom Reuben vowed, gazing down at the ravine as if pained, and having to wrench himself away. Often, he was drawn back to the location to piece the incident together; as though it was gouging his thought.
Thom Reuben knew An Hedra wanted his lands – obsessing about them as if she already owned them; he was thinking there was no other culprit he could place there. Anger welled inside him – a deep-rooted wrath he had never experienced before – and wished he had not. He pushed it aside, fighting to remain composed, and not wishing to allow it to magnify in strength, knowing there was a better way, a solution he had overlooked. He was an intelligent man, schooled in the fine art of commerce and law, forever having the ability to sidestep An Hedra’s many schemes. Then, one day, tolerances were at a breaking point; a few chosen of the townsfolk ventured gamely out to Sir Thom’s castle on the outreaches of the principality to voice their concerns.
“Sir Thom,” they begged, “you must help; the Queen’s gone mad and that henchman of hers is making our lives a living hell.” Thom looked at his friends, saddened that the group was in wide-eyed, needy wonder.
Thom sighed soberly. To him, An Hedra was like a wasp, consistently leaving a deposit; and encouraging those to take supper. Gamut revised his story, updating what material he had uncovered, particularly giving his recollections of the past, and errors made along the way. He knew the King’s will had been tampered with, and that, if they found the copy, it would be the linchpin in An Hedra’s downfall. “Or, we could whip up a forged copy ourselves?” Gamut suggested out of sheer frustration, long aware, he definitely had the ways and means.
“Interesting, coming from the most revered scribe in the land,” Sir Thom was thinking it was slightly humorous even if Gamut did not.
“It is honorable, if it rights an absurdity.” Gamut was crunching the past, and irked by the sanctions thrust upon them.
“I commend your intentions, but, they have too many guards to consider taking it seriously. We have to think of something more subtle, and persistently applied,” Thom answered mindfully. “First… let everyone sitting here at this table later this day be appointed Council over the city. I see our main priority is preserving life. By that, we will supply food to our people. This will be performed by smuggling it in under the shroud of darkness. Secondly, you will enlist a team of loyal supporters; their aim to keep vigil and report back. From now on, matters are going to change considerably.” There was astuteness presenting in that handsome countenance; his eyebrows were leveling now out and quickly taking in the risks abounding.
The Queen had a soft spot for Haig; she knew she would not be where she was without him; but, she also knew she could not marry, or all her fortune would be lost; so, she pampered him like a favored pet; bestowing riches and refinery on his person, while maintaining a discrete relationship; as any revelation would make life complicated; the only thing visible was he was getting more willful to deal with, as power had gone to his head.
Not long after, a powerfully-built stranger suddenly appeared on the scene, a dark-hooded mystery, with a black robe that covered him entirely. The tall, crow-like being’s attire made him present as phantom-like, and now he demanded to address the Queen. He spoke in a haughty voice, in words eerily staid, his features, unable to be discerned. “I can get Thom Reuben off his lands; one month is all I need.” The figure’s voice was impacting like sheet ice; so much so, icicles were suspended in midair before touching the floor.
An Hedra raised her eyebrows in alarm, for she had never seen such power expressed, no, not ever in her life time. “Friend, you have my attention… all of it.” An Hedra was playing down the mention of Sir Thom’s name; regurgitating feelings of ill-will, and, a deep yearning to speedily overtake him. She never forced the question, thinking why bother when the ‘spook’ clearly seemed alongside her; having no doubt he was odd; that coming from her had her sniggering, inwardly.
“What may I call you?” she enquired, thought-provoked.
“I’ll call you, when the time is right.” Enforcing the words, he disappeared as though drops of vapor.
She raised an eyebrow, stunned.
The next day, the same hooded individual fronted up at Thom Reuben’s castle gate. “I’m looking for work,” the large cloaked figure voiced bluntly, his attire so dark; it was shimmering with a tinge of blue in the dappled light.
Thom Reuben gazed up at the powerfully built stranger with hesitation. His voice was uncomfortably unsettling; his hood and long robe so seamless in wonder that, his features were indiscernible. But, not one to presume unjustly, he allowed The Hooded one his request, stipulating that he only had field work available at the time.
The dark presence affirmed it in a tolerable manner.
“Your name?” Sir Thom asked, inclined to enquire.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” the stranger declared, vanishing as in a shrouded mist, leaving Thom pondering.
Work started early at Sir Thom’s castle; the dark Hood engaging with no effort required; never appearing to be lifting anything, not even a finger, but seemingly letting the business float into place. He spoke little but was soon aware Sir Thom looked after all his staff; supplying them with necessary refreshments, and giving them freshly-baked loaves to take home to their families.
The cloaked one barely spoke, isolating himself afar off, although, on occasion having others of an ancient order present. The soldiers were tall like the dark Hood but dressed in chainmail. They never spoke, for the dark Hood knew what they intended to say without conversing, and barely, he nodded his head. He showed little interest in the other workers there, but made no effort to get involved.
At the end of the first week, Sir Thom gave the cloaked figure a few extra farthings for his effort; as tasks thought impossible were no bother to him, and then, he was watching him disappear as usual. He could feel the swish of his garment as it brushed close by, but never touching, too rapid to be considered normal. Sir Thom smiled inwardly, thinking the presence honorable, working as intelligently as he was; he never questioned him, but treated him like the individual he was.
Sir Thom’s daughter, Rosie, was a friendly wee girl; she liked all the workers and, in particular, had a fondness for the stranger. On hot days she would offer nourishment.
“Would you like some drink, good Sir?” she asked, passing it to the Hood whether he wanted it or not.
“Thank you,” the large-caped mystic responded, in a monotone not sociable to polite conversation, his face as always unable to be discerned.
By the second week, bales of wheat destined for the markets mysteriously started to disappear, a baffling loss. Sir Thom was desperately trying to reckon the supply; but, after lengthy investigations, he could not account for the error, posting extra guards on shift outside its enclosure to affect an outcome.
By the third week out in the fields, The Hood, as usual sat alone. Rosie, thinking him friendless, would broach conversation, herself doing all the talking.
“I have some cake. Would you try it?” She advanced boldly, depositing herself alongside him.
He liked Rosie, always sitting silently, but this day, as he lent forward to take the offering, his cover exposed two gouged scars in his upper jaw. She said nothing, but later informed her father. There was no doubt the dark Hood intrigued Sir Thom, as he did everyone. His antisocial behavior and disappearing acts only fueled speculation; but, no one dared question him; his presence was too ghostly to confront.
As time progressed, greater volumes of produce went missing from the cold store, the magnitude alarming, forcing Sir Thom to post even more sentries around its periphery, and inside its establishment; but still, no one was able to explain the incidents.
“Incomprehensible, this cannot be happening. How can a storehouse full of products suddenly vanish without anyone seeing a thing?” Sir Thom Reuben was filled with annoyance, concerned he may not have enough for land taxes that the money-grabbing Queen had increased yet again for the fifth time in a year, and twenty times as much as any other province neighboring its vicinity, the penalty gratingly too harsh to fathom.
“Mystical, perhaps?” Sir Thom’s friend, and long-time Knight suggested, loathe to admit it before; he was unable to figure it out either, having inspected the produce one moment, and having it disappear the next.
“Liam, not long ago we may have thought it ludicrous, but now I am not so sure,” Thom admitted, distracted by a situation seemingly too inconvenient to bear.
Before the fourth week was out, Sir Thom came down and sat beside the dark Hood.
“Rosie sends her apologies; she is unwell and is unable to attend; however, she has prepared the refreshment you like,” Sir Thom remarked, placing the nourishment before he was about to leave. “Do you mind me asking…? I mean, I am curious to know where you are from?” Sir Thom stammered, daring to question him.
“Our family’s from the moors; they were banished twelve years ago by a King who threw them off their lands. My relatives never recovered from it, some dying not long after.” The words were imbued with bitter memories for the one-cloaked-in-black.
“Of which moors do you speak?” Thom enquired, sensing discomfort.
“The moors adjoining your principality, of course,” The Hood answered, accusing harshly.
“That cannot be. King Reuben gave land. He never took it,” said Thom, refuting the idea as ridiculous.
“It was that King; he is the only one who wears a band with a Royal Crest; I should know,” the dark-cloaked spook spat, his jaw showing visible signs that he was not wishing to reveal everything.
“If it happened twelve years ago then it was not my uncle who caused your injustice… the good King’s been dead thirteen years,” Thom retorted; daring to look the hooded one in the eye. The presence was glaring back consumed, its dark pupils changing hue, then roving endlessly; its face unable to be discerned fully, for no one alive was able to look upon those of the hooded clan without consequence, unless they were one of them. “Your facts are wholly… incorrect, and the reasoning behind it appalls me. Go check with the scribes, if you disbelieve,” Sir Thom defended, his voice disclaiming and being disappointed he had misjudged.
Later that same day…
“I wondered when you’d show,” An Hedra remarked, as the cloaked one abruptly appeared. She was consistently trying to peer inside his garment; amazed how he was always there one moment; never approaching, but present, and little forthcoming. If she could only harness that ability for her own, she would have even more power, she estimated, inclined to thought. “You’ve done well so far; the stolen supplies will help with our reserves,” the Queen commended gleefully, “but, remember, you have little time left.” She was now deviating her thought, with a wayward finger.
“One must leave the best for last,” the comment returned with a rush of undercurrent. “When did the King pass on?” The enquiry was seemingly reverberating in the room, with items now falling from shelves.
“Strange, you should ask such a thing?” An Hedra scowled, taken aback by the sudden urge. “For someone who rarely converses, you’re breaking out.” Her remark came bluntly and sharply pointed.
“I demand the truth, in its entire form,” The Hooded one’s eyes were analyzing every nuance of her shady complexion, he having the ability to discern any quiver of falsehood and not in the mood for lies.
“Thirteen years ago. What relevance is this?” She soured at the mention of the incident, and now it was whipping in her thought.
“Everything,” he thundered, refusing to explain. The word were forming ice particles in the chamber then dropping like daggers to the floor.
“Make sure Thom Reuben’s off his property before the month’s end, otherwise the deals off,” the retort came gusty and An Hedra was feeling strong displeasure, but the presence had gone. “No follow-through, and what did it achieve?” she huffed, dubious to the unknowns capability.
Instinctively, The Hood did not trust the Queen; he felt a sudden urge to search the truth for himself, for that one crucial piece of evidence that had been needling him for the past twelve years. He suddenly appeared at the library of the scribes, those skilled in record-keeping and law, and those, who kept account of generations of happenings in the province. He approached Gamut, hardworking at his desk, dutifully scribbling overtime with a feathered quill in hand, repetitively dipping the feather quill in an ink pot, and then taking notes with wrist-flicking acuity.
“I want the exact date of King Reuben’s passing, and I want it now!” The Hood commanded, “and give me documentation that proves it.” The verbal order was discharging like lightening around the room, startling the scribe to upright.
The Hood’s imposing frame was lingering formidably; Gamut stuttered awkwardly, something that had not happened since he was a boy. “No, no problem!” he gestured in tremulous moves, “the King… passed away thirteen years ago on the 7 th of June,” he stated dropping numerous articles in his wake, heading to the methodically-placed archives on the subject.
The Hood groaned uncomfortably in silence.
Gamut, together with his apprentice, who removed her cat off her lap, sifted through records at pace; the pair delving through piles placed orderly on a back shelf. Then, he spied it; the one papyrus verifying the King’s passing. He bound like a cranked feline ready to spring; checking its contents thoroughly before handling the evidence into The Hood’s hand. The action was unbecoming of a record keeper; or someone as inherently graceless and opposed to sport as him. He was hoping the proof may expedite the dark one’s departure, post haste and on a fast donkey.
But The Hood just stood there, taking in the information with barely a flicker of an eye.
“The dates, I can verify, as I was present at the time,” Gamut stated reservedly, taking a back step. His apprentice’s cat slunk, lowering itself before the Hood’s presence, something the pair never thought would happen. The dark Hood made an odd noise reciprocating its attention.
“Did the King ever take land off a family from the western corner of the moors?” The Hood demanded, the words in him were rising like gall.
“None were taken from any family while the good King was in reign,” Gamut refuted; almost offended that he should think it. “He gave land; never did he confiscate it; I should know, as all transactions passed by me.” He was addressing the stranger as if one of sound judgment.
“So, you would know who had stolen land off those people those years ago?” The Hood was focusing his attention back on the scribe as if gripped heavily, or screwed somewhat even.
“More than that, I have proof,” Gamut answered, squeaking mouse-like, wishing to put the record straight, adding more effort to his frustration.
“Then… do so,” instructed the Hood, refusing to leave until he knew for certain.
Gamut quickened himself; lightly sorting old files, all meticulously bound in order of sequence, and placed according to category on a lone back shelf.
He blew thirteen years of dusk off the archive, before fingering through the contents, stopping himself abruptly, self-assured; his filing system was mercifully unerring after laborious years of implementation. Chuffed, he reached down satisfied he had found the necessary scroll; and reading it, before handling it caringly as though it was an entrusted family member.
“As you can see, An Hedra ordered the land deed to be taken from the owners, the De Monte’s, and placed in her name; the signatory at the time was her henchman, I mean head man, Haig.” Gamut was presently clearing his throat, the thought of the big oaf making him want to dry retch.
“So, it is,” the revelation was drawing bitter contention from the onlookers, The Hood was brusquely vaporizing before them.
“That, downright…. pains me to the innards,” Gamut expressed, the latent thought having him breathe more easily.
The Queen was busy in her parlor grooming, when the hooded presence arrived unexpectedly.
“You have wronged my family, and caused upheaval on a large scale,” The Hood now cursed, pointing a menacing finger, his voice echoing disdain though the acoustics of the stoned chamber, making it more disarming.
Startled, she turned to face him. “How can that be, when all we have in common are some bales of hay?” She slighted the intruder; glossing over the matter, as if it was a non-event.
“Twelve years ago, you stole land from a family in the moors. I have come to avenge my ancestry and make those responsible pay.” The Hood’s voice was vibrating the crockery as if shaken by nature.
“They were squatters and they did not belong.” Annoyed, An Hedra was trying to avoid his gaze.
“Insufferable wretch, you do not know what you have done. You gave the order. Haig carried it out; regret you will feel, all the days of your existence,” the stranger was thundering. An Hedra’s prized ornaments were falling off partitions, smashing onto the floor, as the whole room quaked.
“Does that mean you will not be dealing with Thom Reuben?” The Queen enquired, ignoring the words of the presence in the dark cloak and carrying on.
“You have transgressed the righteous; your burden will be heavy with payment,” the response came acidly, as The Hooded one mysteriously disappeared, the words trailing insidiously, leaving jagged ice particles in its wake, then dropping like sabers to the floor.
Over the next few weeks, produce that had previously gone missing from Thom Reuben’s storehouse was mysteriously replaced; the oddity was in granting more, generously it was placed on top. It was then the dark Hood appeared; he stood pensively for a few short moments before speaking.
“I have erred… greatly, and apologize for the lapse.” He was not one to concede wrong doing, or to consider himself committing errors. He looked down at Thom Reuben, but Sir Thom did not utter a word; then as usual, the ghostly presence was gone. It had subsequently never been seen for many months and became almost forgotten over time.
Then, one day, Rosie was out rowing in a small boat, unaware the current was drawing her away. It was midwinter, and an ominous sky dominated the horizon, the wind stretching its icy tendrils across the lands. Unwittingly, her small craft was gradually dragged further off shore; then it was shrouded in mist, before anyone realized. Then, a soldier pointed towards the lake, seeing an outline in the distance.
“Over there, I can see her,” a tall man by the name of John Dee revealed, surveying the large stretch of water to find, as all looked on aghast, her mother pacing the shoreline as though fraught.
There was no other boat within the vicinity, except a small vessel moored on the other side of the lake, which would have taken hours to reach. They watched in horror as the wee girl was taken, diminishing as a dot, the next stop the open sea. Then, something odd happened, the dark Hood suddenly appeared; his unpredictable presence could be seen traveling across water; he strolled out amidst the torrent, grappling the small craft without touching it, his hand directing it effortlessly, and then finally giving it momentum towards the shore.
“Humbly grateful, and indebted, Sire,” Sir Thom conveyed, somewhat relieved of stress.
The Hood, nodded unresponsively, before vanishing in a swirl.
“He warms to you, in a way a gnat should be passed,” Gamut uttered mildly, having been forced to make an impromptu visit and relay events.
The little girl ran to her parents, tears rolling down her rubicund cheeks.
“I told you he was a good spook; he only ever wanted to help,” she gushed.
“Did he say anything?” Hannah asked, hugging her daughter near.
“Only, that there is nothing out here but tiddly fish,” Rosie responded.
Over the next few months the Queen was increasingly irritated by the fact that her stores were diminishing; worse still was the fact that no one could explain a thing; even after posting thirty guards in the store’s enclosure in rotating shifts. Out of spite, and, one by one, she threw her sentries into the dungeon for their lack of observance as she was inconvenienced, and, along with her valued supplies, her vast accumulation of wealth had dwindled. The townsfolk were most amused as rumors ran rife; they were making a point of staying well clear; not wishing to be blamed for events they had nothing to do with, or, could figure out.
Relations between An Hedra and Haig were also strained, as she pressed upon him to speedily solve the puzzle. Haig grumbled, despairingly; having kept his ear close to the walls, and his frustrations nearer. He lashed out with a fist, something he had never done, as he considered the whispering passages an ally; a secret place where much information had been leaked through the hollowed gap. He hid in darkness, determined to find out more, but all he could discern was jilted silence. “What is hiding?” he ranted, louder than intended, biting his lip as his mood soured further.
Spying, unseen, and a friend to the shadows, the dark Hood stood resolute; a deep hint of satisfaction was now gracing the lower corners of his mouth.
A few months later, Thom Reuben was still being supplied with bales of wheat and barley. He stored it thoughtfully, continuing to redistribute it to those in need, aware An Hedra was losing hers. The locals were ever so grateful, knowing it was too perilous to allow anything to slip; the product was unquestioningly accepted as compensation for misdeeds the black Queen had incited. Besides Sir Thom, one other was generously donating; a benefactor from a far away land was sagely bestowing. “Who do you suspect is the thief?” Gamut enquired, giving Sir Thom a rundown of happenings in the township.
“Perhaps, not so much a robber, but one who procures lost property and returns it to its rightful place,” Thom presumed, thinking squarely of The Hood, knowing he would not want to cross him.
“It is the specter, is it not?” Gamut was near cringing at the prospect, the thought of being in his presence any given moment, drawing dread.
Sir Thom acknowledged him, harboring vague amusement, but not entirely letting his feelings be known.
“Apologies, Sire, but we still have not been able to locate the will.” Gamut was relaying the information grudgingly; determined in his efforts to uncover its whereabouts and annul it completely, the gesture considered a mark of respect for his beloved King; for he knew he would never have condoned what An Hedra had done.
But events were evolving ever so slightly; the walls grew ears, and not the sort Haig was accustomed to; someone more powerful was engaging the shadows.
The missing will was a bone of contention in the Kingdom, as merchants from other lands bypassed the region; deterred from entry by a guard, whose motives were closed to reason. While other provinces prospered, Cramorne now stagnated, and An Hedra did little help. The traders dearly missed the contact they had with their old friends, but the risk of traveling there was too great to consider otherwise, as a deep rift lingered, and other provinces could only view from afar injustices being carried out.
Then, one day, as An Hedra’s store houses were near deplete of product, she went to a window in her chamber lamenting. “Why… such lack!” she spat, muddled, pondering what heinous imposition could have caused such depravity; contriving to put more hardship on the townsfolk in order to build her coffers more quickly. Then, she let something slip; the one moment, for which the one in the shaddows had been waiting. “I must have another look at the will,” she was mumbling, so no one else could hear; not even Haig. She pulled open a small compartment at the back of a large portrait of herself. Inside it, she groped for the paper which held her firmly ensconced on the throne; the lifestyle to which she had grown accustomed, and one she felt duly she could not do without.
“All mine.” She hugged the papyrus to her breast, flicking though the contents endearingly, unaware at an open window a large black raven sat perched. It cocked its head intrusively; it was bigger than most of its species; but then, it wasn’t any ordinary crow. It left the fenestrated opening then flew its long journey in the direction of the moors; reaching them, the raven perched itself in front of The Hood. It uttered a language only The Hood knew and could comprehend. He nodded his head solemnly, siphoning the facts; his castle chamber was unable to be seen, as the earth was not its walls nor the air its roof, the establishment large, untouchable, and unseen to human sight.
The next week, strange events started happening in the district. Folk were forced to work longer hours in the fields among growing anguish. The guards, bent on increasing productivity through heavy handedness, were pressed by those further up the chain of authority to get results, with the people growing weary from the grind.
“Can’t you afford us a break, just one?” one man lamented, averse to child labor, and getting quickly carted away amidst growing concern.
Then, word finally reached Sir Thom.
“An Hedra’s gone mad, and now our friends are being punished on a large scale,” Gamut expounded, at the end of his tether.
“There’s a way,” Thom suggested. “But that means my going away for a few days. Tell no one of my absence,” he warned. This had the scribe speculating keenly.
Thom packed his bags with food stuffs and supplies, taking only his friend John Dee for company, they set off.
The road to the moors was rough and inhospitable, as there was no passage to speak of, as no one ever considered traveling that way; its rolling lands flattening out into bracken swamp, its barren plains seemingly stretching out endlessly. Few birds inhabited its marshes, as it was too risky raising offspring on the level ground, making it easy for their main predator, the scavenging fox.
“What does The Hood see in this landscape?” Thom Reuben questioned outwardly, after spending many hours in the saddle; and, not letting his feelings known, as John Dee’s mud-flicked face said it all.
“Endless bog, and not an ale in sight,” Big John grumbled, scanning all directions, the dingy moors not his idea of fun. He frowned inwardly, thinking the place forsaken, and, the sooner they left it the better.
“He is here, I can feel it. I know not where, but I just know.” Thom asserted, bent on finding the presence.
Then, suddenly, an entrance appeared; an ancient medieval castle that was not there a moment ago had just swung open its doors.
“Look!” Big John exclaimed; he and his horse were back-stepping, spooked.
The magnitude of its light-stoned enormity presented as double the size of any other fortress ever seen, and the thickness of the structure was twice as deep; its fabric was seemingly luminous, giving off an ethereal glow.
“Come,” Thom urged, waving a beckoning hand, but John Dee could not budge.
“It is your journey to take not mine. I am stuck fast…out here, in the muck, if you do not mind,” John Dee cleared his throat, eyebrows arched, not comfortable with the situation prevailing. He probed the castle wall curiously with an outstretched finger, it passing straight through, as if not material and not there at all. “No, I am good for staying.”
“Then wait, you shall.”
“Thom… I have reservations…about you entering.”
Thom jumped off his steed smiling inwardly, “Do not… doubt,” he advised, handing the straps into John’s hand.
Thom Reuben entered the high-walled enigma, surprised to see what lay on the other side. The castle was magnificent in design; with divinely-crafted pillars and structures built to the utmost specification, they much larger than expected and seemingly stretching forever. There were people from another era, a time preceding his own, going about their business. He scrutinized their faces, some appearing surprisingly familiar; others with their clothing appearing ornate. He strolled on, guided by a black raven which seemed to know the direction he intended. The bird led him to a magisterial door. Few guards patrolled the entrance, or anything else, as all appeared harmonious. The sacred sound of monks chanting was enriching its holy corridors; but they were nowhere to be seen.
Then, the bird landed on his shoulder, pointing inward with its inky wing. Inside, huge marble pillars dominated the castle’s structure, with rich tapestries and furnishings rounding off the insides. He passed more folk going about their chores, in large-scale hall after hall. He walked further until finally coming to a chamber; a throne sat dominating its enclosure. The bird left his shoulder, and then the dark Hood suddenly appeared, his presence as consuming as ever.
“It must be important to bring you here?”
“We need help to get rid of An Hedra. The people of Cramorne will die if we do not act.”
The dark Hood stood subdued, especially keen to see An Hedra punished for her actions.
“For me to be involved in your affairs is complex, and, will come at a price. It would cause ripples throughout our Kingdom.”
They talked at length until it was time to go.
“Are you the King that reigns forever?” Thom enquired, curious to uncover the truth as the Hood’s cleverness was not of this world but specific to him.
“There is only one realm, with the one sovereign Life, ruling, supremely.”
“Have you seen it?”
“The one light shines eternally, but of that, I can tell you no more. No word of existence of this Kingdom must be known. It is an unwritten law; this place has no address, nor can have any. No one can enter its gates unless they are pure of heart or are related to good, do you understand?” The Hood emphasized firmly.
“I honor your wish.”
Thom was shown out the gate by the raven, and then the massive edifice clammed gracefully shut behind, the castle and its entirety disappearing as feathered dew. John had gone by the time he had made his way; the strange fact was he did not have to travel far before he was standing at his own front door.
“That must have been some discussion… I have been back a week,” Big John expressed, intensely-relieved and curious as to the venture.
“Odd thing is, I have only been gone a few hours.” Thom was thinking time was irrelevant in the Hood’s Kingdom.
A few days later An Hedra anxiously paced the floor, her prized will had mysteriously disappeared from behind its cover. “What have you done with it, Haig!” she screeched, exhibiting an accusing finger.
“You wound me deeply, dearest; I know nothing of what you suggest, least of all acted on it,” Haig responded, mortified she should think it.
She could see from his reaction he knew nothing, so decided to relay all she knew, as it affected him also.
“You have lost the what?! Deep unpardonable grief, we are in it beyond the balls of our feet,” Color was draining from Haig’s pock-ridden façade, his gut writhing, stricken for thought. “If you had entrusted me with the papyrus in the beginning, this need not have happened.”
“How was I to know we would get fleeced?”
Haig pondered momentarily; his large paddle-like feet were scuffing part of his step. “Do not stress my dear; nobody but you and I need know,” he exclaimed, weaseling his thought, his head and shoulders habitually stooped.
It was a dark stormy night. Wind whistled perilously though the trees, with its high-pitched squall; the air was chilly, as when one spoke mist came out of mouths. There was a sharp knock at the door, an impatient knock that spoke of attention. Thom Reuben arose from his seat next to a roaring log fire before placing down a goblet of fine amber mead. There, at the door, The Hood stood majestic; alongside him, an ancient guard, his armory eye-catching, his depth-less gaze watching incessantly, as he invited them in.
“There’s mischief looming. Bolt your doors and hide your valuables, especially what I am about to give you. I have the will for which you have been searching; give it to your scribe, but in no circumstances take it back to the palace. Your battle must be fought from here; conceal it well,” The Hood uttered, the duo then mystically disappearing.
Thom summoned Gamut post haste, through his good servant John Dee. John acted speedily; it was only a few hours later that Gamut finally appeared, crutch stiff from riding a feisty brute of a horse.
“That beast you gave me was wild-eyed and spiteful with intolerance,” he complained, having to brush it repeatedly from latching its teeth to his forearm for the umpteenth time, while trying to maintain control of its movements.
“Perhaps it liked you,” Big John responded, amused by his lack of assertion, while watching him tenuously hanging on.
Gamut was advancing a disapproving eye; the horse’s ears were seemingly flush with its forehead, furrowed in brow, and just as cranked as he was. He huffed, his small frame scampering up the few stairs to reach Sir Thom’s front entrance. He fronted as though wearisome, the nip on his appendage harping like an over-hummed string. “How may I help, Sire?” Gamut sighed; pondering over the urgency and thinking himself going through a near-death experience.
“John… Stand Porter at the door; let no one in, as if your life depends on it,” Thom relayed, leading Gamut through a maze of inner chambers, then into a room behind a revolving bricked wall. He clicked the structure shut before igniting torches, they methodically placed alongside walls. He pulled away a stone in its foundation, inside it revealing a box; opening the lid, he handed squarely into Gamut’s hand the document he was seeking.
“Hope this is what you have been searching all these years? Just one thing, the document does not leave this room. It is too dangerous to do otherwise.”
Showing great care and perseverance, Gamut harvested the contents, his keen eye meticulously sweeping over every line and word, straight away seeing the discrepancy, “See here,” he pointed. “An Hedra and Haig placed the royal seal over their signatures, attempting to disguise the fact the King had signed. I know his Highness’ signature blindfolded, and can state with surety that what you see here is forged; the original is over-lapped in more of a scrawl. That I can confirm, as I was not only called to verify it, but sanction it. After the signing, we applied the royal seal to add to it’s validly, keeping a copy as a safeguard; but, as you know, the rest is history.”
“Time is ripe for closure, and we have to perform.” Thom uttered, annoyed it had dragged on, blaming himself for not acting sooner.
“I have done some research… on The Hood’s ancestry… if you have a mind to know?” Gamut enquired, curious to his depth of interest.
“Intrigued would be an understatement,” answered Thom. He was keen to know more, but by his face he did not show it, aware the scribe had all the historical relevance at his fingertips.
“His family’s name is De Monte. Their clan is an ancient religious people, interested in peace and harmony, as far as we can make out. The information we found was hidden in antiquity many centuries predating our own; the contents foreign, having taken me a good length of time to uncover them; blowing off cobwebs and taking longer to decipher. Legend has it, the family is not of this world, and has been warned not to meddle in present-day affairs.”
“But, why The Hood,” Sir Thom asked, drawn to enquire.
 
“Frightful to be sure… I was wondering that. Many centuries ago, there was a well-respected King by the name of Mathew De Monte. He had a young wife and son. The family was born as leaders in the realm, and supposedly, he was one of the most revered Kings who ever graced the lands; the book informs. However; the situation outside the Kingdom was bad. Theft and crime were prevalent; something he could do little about at the time. Then, one day, his son was snatched by villains; the kidnappers were asking an exorbitant ransom for his return. The King, being principled and wealthy, gladly paid the amount, but never saw his son again. Angry, he summoned an army to search for the culprits, eventually rounding up four men who confessed to the crime, and, to taking his son’s life. He punished them severely by taking all four of theirs. That is when darkness hung over the realm; a black hood was placed upon the King, and also any descendent who should pass on his royal line. However, all was not lost. The dynasty of The Hood was gifted with special powers. Nothing of this world could harm them, being able to appear and disappear at will. But, what was most interesting according to legend, the present day De Montes must right the wrong that happened generations before, otherwise their Kingdom will be lost forever. This, according to the manuscript, must occur five monarchs from the date of Mathew De Monte’s death, which to my calculation, makes it about… now.”
“But, that does not make sense,” Thom Reuben stated, puzzled by the account.
“Actually, it does if you know what I have learned.”
“You see, the old castle Mathew De Monte presided over was built on the very foundation of present day Cramorne.”
“Cannot be… the good King told me our family was the only sovereignty to rule the province.”
“True,” Gamut added, playing down the inference. “The surname of The Hood’s monarchy was actually De Monte. They originated from France, pre-dating our records. How far back the history goes, we have not been able to discern, but, they were predominant leaders throughout time. Then, supposedly, they moved to England, perhaps shortening their name for convenience. But here is the link. King Reuben was a direct descendent of the De Montes. He knew it, but never shared the fact; possibly he did not want to burden you with the problem.”
“Or denying it?” Sir Thom admitted, trying to piece together the fine print, and finding it slightly funny.
“But, what he did not share was the fact that your generation has been chosen to put matters right.”
“So, we are involved whether we like it or not?”
“Unavoidably, as your true name is Sir Thomas Reuben De Monte.” Gamut commented, unable to decipher the entire hieroglyph.
“So, all must be amended this century under whoever reigns?”
“In a nut-shell,” leaving no stone unturned. Gamut was giving him the entirety of it.
“Now, we do our finest. Firstly… An Hedra must go, and the rest of her conspirators rounded up so the townsfolk can be freed as swiftly as possible,” returned Thom, formulating beneath his straight eyebrows, as now he felt like events were falling into place.
“That is the start we have been hoping for.” Gamut’s face was aglow, the years had been long and dismal, and now he wished to give something back, throw it even.
“We need military… at least eight thousand soldiers strong, to march on the palace.”
“We would be lucky to have one-quarter of that amount,” Gamut calculated quickly.
“Then we will borrow them from neighboring provinces, and pass them off. An Hedra will not be any the wiser.”
“How long do you estimate before we have the numbers?” Gamut enquired, focusing particularly on the bullying Haig, finding his oaf-like slithery ways and flowery mannerisms too irksome to bear.
“Two weeks at best, at worst a month, considering the journey, and hopefully King Claremont’s forthcoming with aid,” Thom replied, mindful King Reuben got on well with the eccentric; remembering him as a yappy little man with shifty eyes and a large windpipe of a nose. King Reuben was barely having to make conversation before Claremont incessantly tried to emulate the outcome; this was something Thom found off-putting, diplomatically declining any further engagements because of it.
“Good luck with that,” Gamut frowned impassively, doubtful of any satisfaction there.
The next day Thom Reuben fastened his riding gear, readying himself for an occasion that should have occurred thirteen years previously, although, in hindsight, forgiving himself for being too young to act.
“Sire, it is with reservation, you should leave so underprepared, when you have the facility to take many more,” John Dee suggested, nobly hoping to increase their numbers threefold.
“A full escort will only bring attention. Discretion warrants a preliminary examination.”
John sighed, patently aware Thom was often sidestepping risk in favor of an outcome.
Bidding farewell to his wife and daughter, and, as usual, taking John Dee in toe as a companion, they traveled the high road, taking two days before catching sight of Claremont’s castle and its turrets. The structure was imperfectly illuminated; giving it a doleful appearance, some of the outer wall crumbling like a jagged maw.
They met a number of field workers, stopping to share a meal and generally converse. The ploughmen could see, with two gold lions embroidered in his garment and saddle cloth, denoting one of standing, Thom was of noble parentage.
“Sire, it is inadvisable you should venture to Tolvic Castle. Events have drastically changed over the years, and its entry’s not considered safe,” a short, portly-bearded farmer with a kindly face suggested, discouraging his intention.
“How so, friend?” Sir Thom enquired, wondering what had altered so dramatically over time that he should now be made aware.
“Strangely, it happened not long after the passing of your good King. The connection we are at a loss to understand, but matters have gone from bad to abominable. There are dark carryings on in the middle of the night and no one to stop them. Claremont’s too weak a king to stand up to them,” the field worker lamented, saddened by the admission, and he too unwilling to go there.
“Who are they?” Sir Thom asked, drawn to caution.
“The cluster is a well-organized group of mercenaries. They wear black clothing of fine quality, and have been given authority over the people by the king himself. They have impoverished the townsfolk through a strict regime; while allowing crime to magnify.”
“What is Claremont doing about it?”
“He has taken their side. He is very impressionable,” the farmer added. “Please do not repeat this; it is dangerous enough for my family as it is. We are blessed in that we can work in the fields, but, pity the townsfolk who reside inside its walls. If you must go, disguise yourselves well, so no one knows you,” he suggested, presenting two patched robes fit for peasants.
“Thank you, friend, this never happened.” In agreement, Sir Thom placed two gold sovereigns into his hand. The man bowed appreciably, grateful his family had enough coins to buy food for a year.
The field workers disappeared into the woods, as Sir Thom and the big man walked inside the gates of the high-walled establishment, his costume perfectly fitting, for he was barely of average height and slight of build. But sadly, John Dee’s outfit was two sizes too small as he stretched the aching seams, causing ripping noises, and having Thom chuckle.
“Do not draw attention to yourself,” Thom whispered, just in time to arouse suspicion from a couple of curious onlookers standing near, aware they were not locals.
“You are not from here?” a guardsman remarked, crudely undressing them with the turn of an eye.
“We live close by,” John Dee replied, before Thom could get a word in. “Just looking for field work and the best of Tolvic’s ale on offer.” He was playfully deterring any further observations.
“That garment of yours looks mighty tight,” another remarked, sizing up John’s large frame.
“It is my sister’s. I get all her cast offs; she is a buxom lass, but sadly not as tall and handsome as I,” humored John.
“Get away with yourself,” replied the onlooker, rolling his eye. “The best tavern proven to knock your socks is down that a way.” the sentry signaled, waving them off.
They moved away as old pals, laughing.
“No disrespect Sire, but that accent of yours is a giveaway, allow me to speak,” John expressed delicately. Thom nodded good-naturedly, taking no offense.
They moved swiftly though the streets to the town centre; crowds of people were mingling, going about selling their wares, most mainly fruit and vegetable stalls lining the square; all displaying an array of produce for which the region was renowned. They noticed similar poverty as in Cramorne; the folk looked haggard, their garments well-worn, and were hanging like scrim sacks about their frames. In the shadows, loitering ominously, dark-clothed individuals lazed about watchfully; too many to give solace. Then, King Claremont appeared from his balcony position; strutting his importance along its length to a bedraggled audience below; behind him, a figure lingered, waving a hand.
“I have seen enough to know,” Thom uttered, thinking that whatever hung over Cramorne seemed to latch its tendrils there.
Then, briskly; a raven appeared above. “Hide quickly,” it crooned, landing on a roof gable not far off. Sir Thom grabbed John Dee’s arm, pulling him inward; as he was the only one who could understand the creature. As soon as they were hidden, they heard a clatter of many hooves, the long dark transport stopping just short of the palace door. Then, after a few loose moments, Claremont and the mystery individual appeared. They shook hands, seemingly sealing something previously discussed, before the other attempted to mount his horse. He fumbled initially, his paddle-like feet fitting awkwardly into the stirrups, with little dexterity given to holding the straps. His escort appeared as a grisly spectacle draped in black.
“Haig,” Thom spat, identifying the culprit; his dislike for the man was palpable; he clenched his jaw as he watched him lord his weight, his crooked teeth overly protruding. But then, there was someone more perilous to deal with, someone reckoning in the fold – Scarth had now presented, and it was him and solely him in charge. He felt someone watching, and shot a glance in their direction, but not enough to make him out.
Sensing danger, they slipped like a current away; taking the alley least traveled, its narrow cobble grimy under foot, with an occasional rodent crossing their path, in heightened awareness. Their coats were plush with cover, and bellies fat with scraps thrown from above. The practice was outlawed in Cramorne, while King Reuben was in power was the one thing An Hedra had agreed to uphold.
“Penny for the desperate,” an elderly woman invited as they passed by her door, her long grey hair wispy-thin and frail hand held about a battered wooden bowl.
Sir Thom held a finger to his lips then placed a gold sovereign into her palm.
She looked up enlivened, as if awakened from circumstances too horrendous to dwell. Catching his eye, she whispered, “Blessings to you, Sire; trust no one and make for the exit on the right,” She encouraged in a direction which would leave no doubt.
Thom smiled guardedly, not liking what he saw.
They departed the castle via a side gate, not long before crossing the same two guards as previously.
“An exceedingly abrupt visit,” one soldier observed with questionable doubt, continuing to halt everything and sundry that dared encroach.
“I have been summoned by my sister who has finally decided to make me a dress that fits, so I have been invited to take prompt measurements,” John fabricated cheekily.
The guard let them through, thinking the man too odd for words. Thom followed on unassumingly; that is what he loved about John; he was so appreciably unconventional, making himself feel low key.
They came across the same man working in the fields as before, spindly bales of hay compressed laboriously, then harnessed to his back.
“You are right, good sir; your problem is also ours, which we aim to correct shortly,” The challenges Thom envisaged were not only helping everyone but also himself. There were too many variables in this cesspit of mire, and he was looking to organize and find a way out.
“Sire, if you are in need of help, you can surely have mine. If it improves our situation it has to be a step worth taking.” He was wishing to embrace change; and especially intent on delivering a better outcome for his offspring, hoping they would not suffer the same indignities in the process. “All the profits of our hard-earned labors are consistently snatched by our ruler; and, an inner circle of laggard blood suckers. The townsfolk, despairingly, are left to be hung out to dry.” He was getting nods from others now present.
Thom dismounted. “How many men can you muster at short notice?” Claremont was not an option worth taking, but he knew he needed others. The growing urgency of the situation was lumbering upon him a need to search for alternatives; he was thinking what better place to seek them than from the humble working folk. Thom remembered what his uncle had often emphasized, the fact that the answer was most inevitably in our own backyards, stressing its importance; and admitting it was seldom the first place we intend to look.
“How do I know how genuine you are?” the man enquired; seeing what was involved required absolute trust, and included much more than him.
“My name is Thom Reuben from Cramorne. King Reuben was my uncle; it is for our kingdom and the surrounding province we seek justice, but we need numbers; loyalists to the cause.” Now adamant in his desire to effect change, Thom was willing to throw everything he had at it.
“My name is Liberrias; there is someone to whom you should speak,” he faltered, his brow concentrated with effort, aware repercussions may ensue. “Come, follow me, but it is not an easy path and the one in charge is difficult to sway.”
Thom placed Liberrias’ bales on his horse to lighten his load. They walked for ages among rocky outcrops and undulating landscape, the contour steepening.
“Is it wise bringing our horses any further?” Thom asked, concerned for their welfare.
“We are getting close, bring them,” Liberrias calmly assured, while continuing.
Then, behind a cluster of large boulders, a hidden ravine opened out, the gradient much kinder under foot. They walked still further, taken inside a secluded cave, its high walls harboring a passage which, in turn, led out towards cannon on the other side. They could hear music and laughter in the breeze.
“Who is there?” a gruff voice commanded, uncovering a line of new arrivals.
“It is me, Liberrias.”
“Who are these people, and why are they here?” the sentry demanded, narrowly searching every particular; his clothing was thick with pelt. It was coarsely woven, fastened doubly at the seams.
“Friends who can help.”
“You know the rules. You should not have brought them without permission,” the scout reproved sternly, refusing to withdraw a blade. There were others with him who conveyed similar sentiments.
“I think we should listen to what our friends have to say, before leaping to conclusions,” Liberrias insisted, while displaying a strong sense of sincerity across his brow.
Three others joined the escort down the hillside, its hideaway well thought out, with various buildings dotting its landscape. Many huts caught their eye, made from a concoction of mud and straw thatch, which lay in well-planned groups. The rest incorporated timber, which would have occasioned many labor hours, giving permanence to the structures, as if they had been there for some while. There was a large presence in attendance, as they made their way in; the entertainment ceased abruptly, on anticipating their approach. They parted, as they were led to a man-in-charge. His large bulk was loafing in a long-backed chair; he gazed down contemplatively, his auburn hair and beard plush with curl, easily spotted, through the mix of those gathered.
“You have disobeyed the rules,” he sniped, focusing on his kinsman. “Now we will probably have to keep them, or be rid of them.”
“I would like to introduce you to King Reuben’s nephew, Sir Thom Reuben,” The response Liberrias was gifting him was curt, making sure his leader knew exactly with whom he was dealing.
“How do we know you are that person?” the red head blazed, as if staring down an insect, having little respect for any authority but his own, and especially loathsome of ones born to it.
Thom took off his ring; in its chunky weighted band the royal initials were displayed prominently, then he handed it to his doubter. The man was scrutinizing it intently; the signet-ring was pure with gold, appealing, and without doubt regal by nature. He inspected his dress; it was dark green in hue, woven with the highest grade of thread and durability.
“It does not prove a thing; only that you could have stolen it,” said the head man, tossing it back menially.
“I am no thief, and that slur has surely soured my intention.”
“He is who he says. I have known him all his life, and generations of my forebears,” John Dee defended. Annoyed they had been put through gruel, he pushed past the guard having wind in his sails being held back by a few.
“We have to be sure; we have a large group to protect and do not take threats idly. What do you suggest we do?”
“We would like to remove those villains from office so our people can live in peace and the prosperity they deserve,” Sir Thom was inviting change; more than that, a new way forward.
“How do you propose to do that when there are only two of you?” he remarked, as if the idea was farcical with no way to go.
“I see you do not take me seriously, and lack any respect for my counsel. Come, John; let us look for more able-bodied men elsewhere,” advised Sir Thom, readying himself to leave.
“We may look at it, after you have fulfilled certain criteria.”
“Which are?” Sir Thom asked, sensing distrust.
“A duel; swords being the preferred weapon of choice.”
“Joel, is it necessary?” Liberrius reproved; he had been party too often to the others’ fits of fancy not to be concerned.
“Pick your weapon,” Thom contended, feeling Joel was testing him beyond the limits tolerable, his fair head of hair ruffled like an aggressed fowl.
“I will do it, Sire, best you keep out.” John Dee interrupted, not wishing Thom to be involved any more than he should.
Thom waved him away, not one to draw others into his argument.
“Sabers, I will pick my man,” Joel smirked, thinking to view proceedings from the side line.

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