A twig snapped; sending chills crawling over his skin. The hair on his neck stood straight as his brain calculated the dire warning: you’re not alone. He can almost hear their dagger slide from the sheath. The bushes beside him rustle, but his hand finds the familiar hilt at his waist. An old friend; an enemy with the power to kill. He wasn’t afraid of death; it was a stranger he met long ago.
A bird sprung from the branches, ripping past leaves and into the crystal sky above. His grip tightens, seconds pass like an eternity as the silence engulfs the forest. His enemy, even death, was a hair width away. His horse doesn’t move; remaining steadfast in the face of danger. Another crack, this time to his left. His eyes dart from leafy shrub to the next. The blood pumps through his veins. Another twig cracked, ushering in an eerie stillness.
From the shadows an eight-point buck emerged from the tree line. Soft, auburn with sleek pointed antlers, the brown eyes stare into his. Behind him a doe, who joined his side followed by a white spotted fawn. He exhaled the breath he wasn’t aware he was holding and relinquished the grip on the hilt. Cautious, graceful creatures, but not the enemy he expected.
“Zack, my lad, is everything alright?” Allan, the aging king of Alexanderia, beckoned him with a smile. “You best not stray down that path. Travelers’ say there is a way to the heart of Lunar Forest in these parts, and frankly it’s not a place for the light of heart.”
“His Majesty is right, there’s enough fiends ahead of us, its wise not to chance the ones behind,” his uncle added. Zack pressed his heels into the horse’s side motioning her forward. The king’s hearty laugh drowned out the chirping songbird in the distance. He and his uncle share secret jokes, as they rode side by side. It was a rare sight, to see Allan relax and in high spirits.
“Does Lunar Forest exist? A forest of perpetual night, sounds like a ghost story.”
“Tall tales stem from truth,” Allan began as he led the party further along the path. “Although the origins are unknown the stories tell of evil stalking the winding paths. I have been told; few ever escape with their lives.”
“Amusing isn’t it, something as sinister as Lunar Forest just south. And north is Lollardum which is home to another sort of trouble all together. Seems to me, it’s best if we avoid this part of the continent all together,” his uncle mused.
“Where is your sense of adventure Lex,”
“I am not the spry soldier like our Captain here. Adventure, like cakes, don’t seem to agree with me anymore.”
“Do you hear that lad, more adventure for us then.”
“Is that why you brought me along, sire?” he meant it in jest but Allan’s smile faded.
“I read your report of the massacre at Dragon Haven. I regret that you had to experience it. But you handled it with the compassion and leadership I expected from a knight in my Guard. If I must face trade talks with Castellan and the rest of the leaders of Umara, I rather have you and Lex at my side.”
The mention of Dragon Haven forced his stomach to his feet. Until that day he didn’t know the small village existed; but all they had to do was follow the smoke. An entire livelihood and peoples wiped away, only their charred corpse remained.
“I appreciate your sentiment your Majesty.” It was a difficult scene to secure; he couldn’t erase the images of burned bodies from his thoughts.
“It’s more than sentiment Zack, Lollardum is not safe for his Majesty. Honestly, I rather skip the whole endeavor—”
“We both know I refuse to cower behind our mountain walls. Despite how much these talks bore me to tears, I will not change my plans.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty, but is it safe for you in Lollardum? I mean you are a Mage after all.” Allan gave a small laugh, regarding him as if he were the son, he never had.
“I have little to fear there, my boy, my position protects me enough. Plus, I have both of you, I am the safest man in all of Umara.”
“These talks are a gruesome task,” Lex added. “Nothing but rich people stroking their egos weaseling money from each other, no offense my king. However, it is a good way to examine Lollardum, see if they are plotting something new,” he winked.
Smog roamed over Lollardum transforming the cerulean sky into a dreary overlord. The kingdom felt like a moist worm squirming between his toes. People, merchandise, and livestock squeezed through throngs of rodents and garbage. It was as if the entire continent existed in the narrow streets. The aroma of exotic spices mixed with rotting fruit and urine stuck to his nostrils. Foreign accents vibrated the air, engulfing him, and drowning out his thoughts. It felt like the entire market square could fall on top of them at any moment.
The one sight he could claim he enjoyed was the giant mechanical clocktower in the market center. The stone tower, with its corroded copper peak, climbed above the disheveled buildings. Metal gears clunked into their sets as iron hands ticked over the cream face. At the top of the hour a brass bell rang throughout the streets; never out of sync or delayed. It was the only thing in Lollardum he could predict with a hundred percent accuracy.
His companions remained steadfast; wearing a stern look upon, only a moment ago, was a smiling face. Danger lurked behind any grin; but with Allan it was two-fold. He rode in the middle, as a precaution. Past the markets was a crumbling stone wall, part of the original kingdom. Here the chaos funneled away, and made room for nicer homes, and higher end businesses. These areas were for the upper class; those who needn’t associate with the poor. They live behind the wall, isolated from the conditions of those beneath them.
The roads were a maze, as if the rich claimed what they wanted; forcing the infrastructure to bend to their will. Past the stately homes was the castle; isolated by a rancid moat. Various drawbridges connected the seat of power to the rest of the kingdom. It was a statement to the barbarian past where one took what he wanted and never looked back. A hard façade with crumbling mortars’, he doubted the fort would survive a battle. But then again, king Castellan made his riches from everyone else’s wars. The castle was nothing more than a shell of brutality concealing natural laziness.
He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants before grabbing a goblet from the servant’s tray. He took a gulp to settle his nerves and nodded to the boy in appreciation. People clung to their groups; their chatter propelled him; a reminder he didn’t belong. Allan laughed with a group of old companions to his right. Lex, in a secluded corner, discussed secrets with his long-time friend General Steele. Zack sighed, adjusting his collar; loosening the noose gripping his neck and circled the room. His boots echo over the wood, but to them he’s invisible; an outsider with a modest income is of little interest. He strolls passed three men huddled beside the fireplace.
“Did you hear Albert? Dean’s factory had an incident the other day,” said the man with a mole by his left earlobe.
“Oh, pray tell, was it a nasty one?” Grinned Albert wearing a grey wig.
“Seems like a broiler exploded, killed three and injured five more.” He suppressed a laugh, “Guess old Dean won’t be in business for much longer.”
“It’ll shut him up for a while. If I have to hear about his soaring profits one more time—”
“On a brighter note, the workhouses have less mouths to feed. Now they’ll stop asking for donations.” The three men laugh and gave a toast to themselves. Zack moved on to another group, almost dreading what he’ll hear from the women standing by the table of food.
“Annette, did you know that Natalie is with child?” The one with her hair braided into a crown on her head spoke quietly to her friend wearing a fashionable hat.
“From what I heard of her, I must ask, is this a good happenstance?”
“According to Mrs. Philbrick the baby may not be Lord Mortimer’s.”
“A scandal indeed. But then again, he is so desperate in his old age for an heir he may not care of the child’s lineage.”
Annette’s sharp eyes met his, ordering him far from her presence. He didn’t waste any time and found an empty corner as far away from the party goers as possible. The servant boy with refreshments gave him a sympathetic glance as he walked by. But Zack smiled in returned, happy with the high-quality wine in his cup. He enjoyed the silence, resting beside a golden deer sculpture which shielded him from more awkward interactions.
“Captain Dawson, is it?” A young man in a formal military uniform grinned. “I knew it was you, I heard you accompanied the king. It is a pleasure to meet you at last.” He held out a gloved hand and his grin grew. But his smile didn’t reach his chestnut eyes, which remain dark and calculating.
“Likewise,” he gripped the man’s hand. “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“Samuel Dahl, Captain of the King’s Guard.”
“Ah, nice to meet you. Thank his Majesty for the invitation, I’m having a great time.”
“Is this your first time in Lollardum,”
“I guess you have been too busy winning tournaments to indulge in recreation?”
“Dahl, yes I’ve seen your name on the Lists. You won the sword competition last month. Congratulations.” Samuel grinned, straightening his posture, as he moved his goblet to his chest.
“Yes, it was a momentous occasion. A shame you missed it.”
“The General assigned me elsewhere,” he mumbled, trying to forget the stench of burned flesh.
“There is an unsavory rumor that I would not have won if you participated. Some say that until I defeat you, I can not claim victory.”
“Oh, I doubt that” he felt the blush creep up his neck. “You won it fair and square, don’t let fanatics cast a shadow over your victory.”
“Even so, I can not allow myself to contemplate on what if. We must fight, to satisfy my curiosity.”
“I am honored, but I must decline at present. But perhaps you can test your luck at the next tournament.”
“I’ve never met a military man who believes in luck.”
“Well rigorous training only goes so far, doesn’t it? Sometimes the Gods are on your side, some days they aren’t. It’s those days when you need your training the most.”
“Interesting perspective, I guess they train you a bit different in Alexanderia. We don’t need Gods here; what we want we take. We are men who make our own destinies.”
“The Mages would say it’s foolish pride to believe oneself was greater than the divine.”
“Sounds like you’ve been suckling the breast of your Mage king.” He laughed and Zack smiled, trying to ignore the sting of the insult. “Mages don’t know everything, despite what they think. They’re stupid things. How else do you explain their behavior as of late? Only fools would threaten the king.”
“What are you referring too?”
“Oh, well Captain, let me enlighten you.” He motioned for a servant with a tray. Grabbed his near empty goblet and replaced it with a fresh one before taking one for himself. “We have reason to believe that a group of Mage radicals is causing chaos in the Districts. There was a fire that destroyed an entire block of homes. To think those animals would deliberately destroy lives and livelihood; it’s despicable.”
“Mage radicals, is that so? From what I am led to believe, they’re forbidden to hurt Innocents.”
“Don’t trust a word of a Mage, they’re only out to protect their own. Even your king there, who’s to say if he had to choose between protecting his people and us, will he allow them to die to save us?”
“Have you ever met a Mage before?”
“Is that a joke?” Dahl mused, reading his stare. “We have the largest population of Mages on the continent. They’re like rats, you can’t walk through this kingdom without stepping on one or two.”
“So, you’re an expert then?”
“I’ve had my share of encounters yes.”
“Then why don’t you take your new revelations to King Avalon; I am sure he is eager to hear your discoveries on his own race.” Dahl’s rugged face twisted into a scowl. He gave a curt nod and left towards Annette and her friend by the fireplace. Zack spent the rest of the party beside his new friend the deer. Hours later when Lex asked if he enjoyed himself, he smiled and said yes.
Revisit Chapter Two: Family Ties
Venture ahead to Chapter Four: Rustle in the Darkness
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