Zac awoke with a start. Raised voices sliced through the darkness as booted feet hurried across the cobblestones of the castle’s courtyard.
This is it, thought the boy, but I’m not ready.
Fighting down the fear threatening to paralyse him where he lay on the straw of the stable floor, Zac climbed to his feet on sleep-weary legs. His eyes searched the stable for anything he could use to defend himself, his head whipping this way and that. The horses were agitated, stamping their hooves and snorting. Zac tried to calm the nearest with a stroke as he scanned the dark interior. Booted feet came nearer as someone else ran past the wide wooden doors. They must have carried a burning torch, because the light through the cracks in the wood glinted off the pitchfork leaning against the wall near to the door. Dashing over, the boy grabbed the two pronged tool, the nearest thing he had to a weapon. At the door he hesitated, just for a moment. Shouts rent the cool night air, and Zac heard the Baron’s voice ring out in command, calling his men to order. Holding the pitchfork in front of him, the stable boy unbarred the wooden door, one-handed. Before he might have time to regret his decision, he pulled it open wide, and stepped out.
Outside, the clamour was louder. Soldiers ran across the courtyard obeying commands, and shouting orders to others. Burning torches had been lit to illuminate the courtyard, though many areas remained dark and sinister making Zac wonder what might be hiding in them. Everyone was in a panic, running and shouting. He couldn’t see why.
The only one keeping his head was the Baron, Zac’s master. He stood tall in the middle of the courtyard, eyes glinting in the torchlight. Zac had never known the Baron show any fear, and the great man didn’t now. He dominated the running figures directing them to the main gates, and used his drawn sword to point to the battlements where the archers poised to fire. At the same time, he seemed able to take in every man in the area at a glance. The Baron barked orders, and his men obeyed without question. Zac knew the reason for this was respect rather than fear. Everyone loved their master, and knew how lucky they were to live at Albemerle, until talk of demon attacks in the area had become the main topic of the servant’s quarters. No one had seen any sign of the creatures from hell, but they knew enough to be afraid.
Not wanting to get in the way of the armed soldiers, Zac stayed in the shadows where he could see everything going on around him. The thick stone walls of the mighty castle glowed in the torchlight, the reflections on the leaded windows giving the appearance of the castle being on fire. Zac didn’t think it was, at least not yet. No one was running out of the castle in panic, and he was sure they would be if it was ablaze.
There was no sign of any of the servants, but they had probably been ordered to stay inside. Zac would have been with them, had he not decided to sleep in the stables with the horses. He slept there quite often when the days were warm, and no one had ever forbidden him to do so. In truth, Zac enjoyed sleeping near to the horses more than he did the other boys. He found the sounds and smells of the beasts far preferable to those of some of the other lads in the servant’s quarters. Tubs snored like a pig, and Smithy spent the night letting rip. They were both forever having boots thrown at them, but they just laughed and went back to sleep. No one will be laughing or sleeping tonight, thought Zac.
For all the commotion, Zac couldn’t see any attackers inside the castle walls. No one was fighting, but something had to be happening. He just couldn’t see what. The boy was quite pleased he had decided to be brave and come out of the stable, but that he didn’t have to follow up on his bravery yet.
The men gathered at the inner gates where the Baron was shouting orders to open them. Open them? Zac didn’t understand. Archers were calling down to the master, but Zac couldn’t make out what they were saying. Had the outer wall and drawbridge been breached? If it had though, would the Baron be ordering the gates open? Zac would know soon enough, because two men were now on each side of the huge iron bound gates swinging them open.
One horse staggered in on its last legs. The man riding it fell off as soon as the horse, panting and in obvious distress, stopped in the courtyard. The Baron rushed to the fallen man as soldiers steadied the shaking mount, blood flecks foaming on its lips. As if the poor horse knew it had now done its duty, it fell to the ground, blood pouring from one of many gashes in its side and legs. Zac edged closer as the huge gates were swung shut and bolted again, wondering if he could ease the horse’s distress. It was well beyond help. With a swift movement of his sword, the nearest soldier put the poor beast out of its misery. They couldn’t do the same for the man.
The battered soldier lay in Baron Albemerle’s strong arms, trying to speak. Zac heard his master say, “Try to save your breath, my friend, you are too weak.” His eyes full of concern, he wiped blood away from the soldier’s face.
“Too many…” gasped the dying men. “I’m sorry, my Lord. We failed…”
“No,” said Albemerle, his voice full of compassion. “You have never failed me, nor will you ever.”
The man looked relieved in the flickering torchlight, then he coughed blood and gasped his last breath, the Baron still holding him.
“No!” shouted Baron Albemerle to the night air, then bowed his head in grief. Soldiers came to carry the dead man away.
Zac had tears in his eyes too. The servants had heard about other soldiers riding out and never returning, but this was the first time he had seen one die. It was horrible. There was nothing he could do. Looking around, Zac saw the soldiers were returning to their posts. It appeared the commotion was over, for now. The look-outs on the walls must have signalled there was no impending threat. Invaders were not breaking into the castle tonight.
Still clinging hold of the pitchfork, Zac returned to the stable. He didn’t know if anyone had seen him or not. Lying down again, he knew there was no way he could sleep. Even when he closed his eyes all he could see was the soldier’s agonised face. He stared up at the rafters, wishing daylight would come. A few second later, a familiar voice spoke outside the stable. Zac recognised it as Garth, the Baron’s eldest son.
“Things are bad, Morgan. Much worse than we expected.”
Zac listened for Garth to speak again before he rolled and began to edge closer to the wall. From here, the voices were clearer. He leaned towards a crack in the wood to try to see. It didn’t help much, but at least he was now more in earshot.
“What are we going to do, my Lord?” asked Morgan, the Captain of the Guard. “Shall I take a force out myself to search for Aldric?”
“No,” Garth replied. “We have lost too many men already. We can’t afford to lose more. Where in the name of the Fates is Aldric?” Garth sighed. “I fear the worst must have happened. He has never let us down before. Vorac has become too powerful. Mark my words, evil forces are at work here.”
“But could Vorac amass such a force in so few months?” asked Morgan.
“Evil flows from the man. We have known for some time he delves in the ancient Black Arts. He always seemed harmless with his sorcery, little more than a figure to ridicule.” Garth shook his head. “I fear we have been fools, Morgan. He wants power, and will not stop until he has gained it. I would say this to no other man than you, my trusted friend. I fear we might be too late to stop him.”
The captain paced before Garth, his fingers touching the sword strapped to his hip. “But, Lord,” he called out, “this can’t be!”
“Hush my friend. We do not wish to alarm too many as yet. Three forces have ridden forth in search of Aldric. One man returned, and maybe he was only allowed back to strike fear in us all. We are alone in this. Vorac is biding his time. His demon led forces have already taken Baldon and Moorhaven. He wants all the land, and he is getting ever closer to his ambition. We are all that stands between him and his goal.”
“But, if we could find Aldric?”
“If, Morgan, if. We have tried, and so far, failed.”
Morgan resumed his pacing. “Perhaps one man alone could get through, my Lord. Maybe I should go myself?”
“No,” Garth replied. “You are too valuable to us here. The men all respect and follow you. I see the sense in what you are saying, though.
Zac continued to watch and listen. Garth rubbed at the stubble on his chin, appearing lost in thought. He then turned back to Morgan. “One man might get through where an army has failed. I’ll bear it in mind, my friend.” He placed his hand on the captain’s broad shoulder. “There is no more to be done tonight. Another day might bring fresh hope. For now, I need to sleep”
“Yes, my Lord.” Morgan turned, and walked away.
Garth stood a moment longer, his eyes glazed as he stared towards where the man had died tonight. “Fresh hope,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head.
From his tone, Zac knew he didn’t mean a word.
The footsteps faded away into the night, and the boy lay listening to the sound of his own heart beating. So it was true. They were all going to die, horribly, at the hands of demons.
Pulling his woollen blanket over his head, he tried to sleep. He listened to the comforting nicker of the horses in the nearby stalls, and his heart ceased to race quite so fast. Daylight finally came, and he hadn’t slept a wink.
“I might have known I’d find you here, come on you lazy lout!” A booted foot connected to the loud voice nudged Zac in the back. “It’s well past cock’s crow. Lord Marcus wants his mount. Up with you.”
Zac wasn’t keen on Wilf, the stable master. Especially this morning. Wilf wasn’t too bad some of the time, but he had a very abrupt way about him. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, Zac peered at the ill-tempered man.
“Sorry, Wilf.” Trying to waken himself up, he hurried past to dunk his head in the cold water of the horse trough. Shaking the drops of water from his dark curly hair, he looked towards Wilf and added. “I had a bad night, what with the commotion and all.”
Wilf wouldn’t be dragged into talking about it. “You don’t know what bad nights are, boy. Wait ‘til you’re my age,” He stretched his back, then rubbed at his aching, knotted hands to emphasise the point. “Then you can complain.”
Zac decided not to answer. Instead, he went about his morning duties, still dazed after last night’s happenings. He loved working with the horses, and greeted them all as individuals. It was hard work, but he enjoyed it. Today was especially difficult only because he had so much on his mind. He needed to talk to Beth as soon as possible.
Once his first duties of the day were over, Zac rushed over to the kitchen for his breakfast. Most of the castle staff were seated and already eating.
“Where have you been, boy?” asked the head cook, a large imposing woman who always seemed to have a huge wooden spoon gripped menacingly in her hand. “Nearly missed your tucker, you have. Aren’t you hungry?”
“Starving.” Zac replied with a grin. He sat down on one of the wooden benches and looked around for Beth. His eyes brightened when he saw the young girl wave from near one of the huge hot stoves. She was soon over with both their breakfasts in her hands.
“What kept you this morning?” Beth asked. “Was it something to do with all the noise last night? We weren’t allowed to see what was going on, but everyone was frightened. It isn’t like you to be late for food, so what happened?” She looked concerned as she placed a bowl of steaming porridge in front of him.
“It was frightening,” Zac admitted, already digging into his breakfast.
“What was it?” Beth asked, a troubled frown on her face.
“One of the soldiers came back,” said Zac, wondering how much to tell his friend.
“One?” asked Beth. They had both watched the troop ride out two weeks ago.
Zac nodded, looking down at his bowl. He scooped another spoonful of porridge into his mouth, then said, “He returned alone.”
When Zac looked up again, he saw Beth was waiting for him to continue. Unsure what to say, he settled for the truth. “He was seriously injured, Beth. He died.”
The girl looked distressed and frightened. Zac knew he had to tell her what he’d heard. Sometimes, not knowing what was going on was the worst part. Until last night, he hadn’t known the purpose of the troops riding out either. “I heard Garth talking later, after I returned to the stable,” Zac said, only to be slapped across the ear.
“LORD Garth to you, my lad,” corrected the head cook who was passing behind him. “And don’t you go eaves dropping on your elders and betters, you hear me?”
“Sorry,” he muttered, flushed with embarrassment. Zac waited until the cook was out of earshot, then told Beth about the conversation he had overheard. Her large brown eyes opened wider and wider.
“Oh Zac, what can we do?”
“Well,” he continued, “There’s a lot of talk about finding Aldric. They believe if he can be found, then everything will be all right.” Zac pulled at the frayed sleeve of his woollen shirt. “I don’t understand why, Beth. What’s so special about Aldric?”
Beth looked puzzled too. “He can do some amazing tricks. I’ve seen him make coins appear out of thin air, or even from someone’s ear, but I don’t think that would be much use against demons.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Zac. “Aldric means the world to me. After all, if he hadn’t found me in the forest as a baby and brought me here, I wouldn’t even be around.”
Zac knew little or nothing of his early life. All he remembered was being brought up by various household staff. Aldric had visited him often during his younger years. He seemed to take a special interest in his health and well being, like he felt responsible for him. Sometimes it troubled Zac that he had never known his mother or father, but he had no major complaints about his life. He worked long days, but in his fifteen years of life he had been well looked after, and he was happy most of the time.
“You’ve always been very special to Aldric,” replied Beth, pulling Zac back from his thoughts of the past. He believed his mother must have hated him to do such a thing. The thought that she could abandon him still hurt.
“Yes, I know,” he replied to Beth “He’s special to me too.” Zac smiled, scraping every last morsel of porridge from his bowl. “But I still wonder why Garth, Lord Garth,” he corrected, looking around with thoughts of his stinging ear, “thinks he is so important”
“I don’t know, but I’m on serving duty today, I’ll do my best to listen out for more news. The masters often act as if we’re not there at all when we serve at meals. Half of what I hear would make your hair curl, even more!” she added, ruffling Zac’s black hair.
“I’ll have to go,” he said, standing. “Wilf will be after my hide if all the stables aren’t mucked out on time.” With a grin, he added, “I’ll see you later.”
Heading back to the stables, Zac smiled to himself. Beth was the younger sister he’d never had, though there was just a year between them. She was always there for him when he was worried, upset, excited even; to listen to him and to share his feelings. Life was good for him.
The shock of reality came back with a bump. What a fool he was. How could he have forgotten, even for a moment, the conversation he’d heard last night? Life was soon to change, very much. It was going to be affected for the worst, and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.
The whole morning passed in much the same daze to which Zac had awoken. His mind was so full of worry and curiosity, he found it difficult to keep his mind on his work. At midday break, Beth had little time to speak as she bustled around serving the other workers. She did manage to slip in a few words.
“I’m sorry, Zac,” She passed him a plate of mutton stew. “Everyone is being so wary of us today. Few words have passed between the Baron and his sons within our hearing.”
“Hurry along, lass, I’m starving” called Brent, the fencing master.
Zac didn’t blame him. The food smelled delicious. With an apologetic smile, Beth hurried on with the meal. Little else passed between them before Zac had to be off to exercise the horses not being used. This was the part of his job he liked best. He loved to ride, and was quite an accomplished horseman. Sometimes, when she had an afternoon free, Beth would ride with him too. The masters didn’t mind. They knew the horses were always there when they needed them, and were well looked after. Today though, Zac rode alone under strict instructions not to leave the castle grounds.
“Why’s that, Wilf?”
“It’s not your place to ask why, boy, nor mine to tell you. Just do as you’re told,” he replied.
Zac sensed Wilf knew little more than he did. The stable master liked to drop hints of knowing about the goings-on around them, but this time his sour expression told the boy he had been unable to find out the true reason for the new ruling. The shroud of mystery was rapidly descending on the whole castle, growing thicker every day. Zac began to ponder just how much even the masters know for fact, and what was little more than speculation.
By evening, neither he nor Beth were any the wiser. Everyone was being very tight lipped and walked the corridors as if the weight of the world was sitting on their shoulders.
“You know what they say,” Beth said, “No news is good news.”
Zac knew she didn’t believe what she said, but he appreciated the fact that despite her own fears, his friend was trying to ease his. He realised how selfish he’d been. Just because he was so worried, it didn’t give him reason to trouble Beth.
“I know,” he replied. He smiled and squeezed her hand. “Anyway, maybe I heard wrong. It was the middle of the night and my mind was full of what had happened. We’ll find out what’s going on for sure in the morning. Everything will be all right, you’ll see. Why, I bet Aldric is on his way right now.” Zac knew he was trying to persuade himself about this as much as he was trying to convince Beth.
Even though he’d believed his mind would never give him any peace that night, Zac was asleep almost before his head touched the straw. Dreams clouded his mind, nightmares of trying to claw through a dense fog. He was pushing past bright red trees that reached out to grab him as he forced his way. Like crawling in quicksand, he had to dig his broken nails into rough tree bark to drag himself on. He was heading somewhere, and knew he had to get there soon. In frustration, he didn’t know which way to go. His surroundings were vague. There was something he had to remember, but it wouldn’t come to him. The harder Zac tried to reach out for it, the farther it escaped his grasp. His head began to pound, the pulse of pain nauseating.
He could hear a voice in his dream, but inside his head rather than coming from his surroundings. It frightened him. The voice was insistent, and Zac covered his ears to try to chase it away. I’m going mad, he thought. Soon, it became impossible to keep fighting. His dream self stood still in the fog, and gave him up to the words in his head.
“Come to me. You must come. Do not fight your destiny. Do not turn away. Do you hear me, Zac?”
“By all the Fates, at last!”
It was a voice Zac recognised, but couldn’t place. He was both afraid and fascinated. His knew in his dream he could answer without voicing his words aloud. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“It is I, Aldric. You must know my voice by now, boy? There is no time. I do not know how long I can keep this contact open, nor how long it will be undetected. Listen carefully, Zac. Go to the Baron tomorrow. Tell him what you have experienced. You must remember this! Many lives could depend on it. You must come to me, in whatever way you can. See the Baron and ask him for my casket.”
“Casket?” Zac asked.
“Don’t interrupt, boy, just follow my instructions. If the Fates remain with us, you will understand everything soon enough. If they do not, then your knowledge will be useless anyway. See the Baron, ask for the casket, and tell him you must seek me. He will understand.”
“But how, where?” Zac was confused, but he knew this was all too far fetched to be a dream.
“Use your mind, boy, not your eyes. You will see,” Aldric urged.
Zac stared through the dark, bleak swirls, concentrating as hard as he could. The mist gradually began to part, until only wispy tendrils remained.
“Behold, and remember,” Aldric’s voice continued, much weaker now.
Before Zac stood a huge, imposing tower, pointing high into the starless sky. A dark finger aimed at the heavens in warning. A gleam of black radiance surrounded the structure that bore no windows or doors. No way in, and no way out.
“You’re in there?” asked Zac.
No reply came to him.
“Aldric?” he called. He tried again, louder this time. “Aldric?” He felt alone, and afraid. Zac could smell horses now, his senses becoming stronger. He found himself chilled, but in the darkness of the familiar stable.
He lay awake for hours, then the exhaustion from the previous night’s lack of sleep finally allowed him to drift back into oblivion. The remainder of the dark hours were dreamless, yet he awoke with a feeling of terrible foreboding. Light was beginning to filter through the cracks in the wooden walls of the stable when he opened his eyes. He rolled to his back, troubled but unsure why. When he did remember, a terrible fear began to churn his stomach.
“What’s wrong with me?” he asked, directing the question to the roof of the stable. He had been thinking of Aldric when he went to sleep. “A stupid dream isn’t even worth mentioning.”
“Talking to yourself now, lad?” asked Wilf, entering the stall where Zac had slept.
“Uhm, oh, morning, Wilf. I just had a dream,” Feeling foolish, he stretched, feigning the heaviness of sleep.
“Come on then. Up. There’s work to be done.”
So the day began, as had every day before it. But something inside Zac, something too deep to recognise or realise, told him the days to follow would be very, very different.
Over breakfast Zac was preoccupied. Even when Beth came to join him he barely acknowledged her. This was the only meal of the day they got to eat together, since Beth usually had to eat with the other serving girls. Both of them looked forward to the time to chat and share their thoughts.
“You’re very quiet,” she began tentatively.
“Um?” Zac asked, not even completely sure what she had said.
“Why Zac, I’d almost think you were in love. Where were you then?”
Zac could tell she was trying to make light of the moment. “Oh, it’s nothing,” he replied, avoiding her eyes and tucking into his breakfast.
Beth was silent, and seemed lost in her own thoughts. Zac was too distracted to pay much attention to the tension between them.
“What have I done?” she finally asked, hurt evident in her voice.
Zac’s head shot around, really looking at her for the first time today. He could see the trouble and pain in her eyes. Distress he had caused her.
“Oh by the Fates, Beth, never think you have done anything wrong! You’re all that keeps me sane most of the time.” He had no choice but to tell his friend what had happened. Zac took a deep breath and recalled his dream from the night before as accurately as possible. He found it strange that, unlike his earlier hazy memory, for some reason he was able to recall it now in great detail. This troubled him even more. It made it seem too real.
Beth listened attentively. She never uttered a single word through the long telling. The only sign she gave Zac of taking it in was the shock he saw in her brown eyes. When he finally finished, he watched her carefully, to try to judge what she thought. “I know, I’m just a big baby troubled by a silly dream.”
“You can’t mean that!” Beth exclaimed. “You must go to the Baron and tell him what you saw.”
“About a dream?” Zac asked. He knew she was right, but needed someone else to tell him so.
“It’s more than just a dream, Zac, I feel it. You can’t ignore this. You must tell the Baron.”
“But what if…?”
“Listen to me, Zac. If it was only a dream, then there will be no casket and you will feel foolish. We both know it was more though, don’t we? It does no good to pretend” She paused, allowing her words to sink in. “If there is a casket, then we know what that means, too. Go to the Baron.”
Zac knew she was right, but he was afraid. He wasn’t afraid of feeling foolish, but more of the implications of finding out the truth. What if there was a casket? No matter how long Zac argued with his own mind, he knew Beth was right. He had to see Baron Albemerle to find out.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 04.01.2010
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