"Into The Dark"
Reddain pulled a stool up to the bar and sat down with a thump. He looked around him. It was just another dismal inn with the normal ensemble. Men, dirty from a hard day's work, gathered around tables drinking and gambling. A lone female on a makeshift stage singing out to the tune the harper played. Waitresses scurried from table to table, taking orders and bringing drinks. Reddain shook his head and turned to the barman.
"What ya be havin' ?"
"Ale." Reddain studied the barman. He was just like the last one. Fat, with a double chin. His apron was dirty, stubble showed he hadn't shaved for days. It made Reddain feel nauseous. Reddain had always been proud of his physical fitness. He was a tall man with bronzed skin and an excellent physic. He found women chased him wherever he went whether he wanted them to or not. He enjoyed it most of the time but it could get frustrating. The last lass had tried to cut away some of his blonde hair, saying she wanted a reminder of his beautiful blue eyes. Reddain smiled to himself at the memory.
The barman placed a mug on the wooden surface, sloshing his hand with ale. "You's a stranger to these parts. Ain't normal for a stranger to be travelling alone."
Reddain sighed. "I was with a companion until two days past. We were ambushed in the forest just north of here. I haven't seen him since." Reddain peered ruefully into his ale. That was why he was here, to ask for word of his friend. By-o-rall and he had been travelling together for the past year, out looking for adventure. They had found their adventure in the forest. "I was hoping he might be here. Perhaps you have seen him? He's about six feet tall. His hair's black, shoulder length. He's got a scar down his left cheek. You can't mistake him."
The barman shook his head. "You's the only stranger I've seen in weeks."
Reddain nodded. He had expected as much. It had been the same in every inn he had stopped in. Nobody had seen a stranger for some time, nobody wanted to. Reddain would not give up. He had sworn to find his friend if it was the last thing he did. "Maybe you have seen a man carrying his sword then. It is much like mine, only it carries the engraving of a blade master." Reddain unsheathed his blade for the barman to inspect. It was a plain sword attached to a standard one-handed hilt. What made it stand out was the length, almost as long as his leg, and the engraving of a six pointed star just under the hilt.
Again the barman shook his head. "Only people 'round here that carry arms's the local guard and their blades is half that length."
Reddain sipped his ale. It was warm. "Thank you." He dropped a gold piece on the bar top and turned to go. The barman stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Reddain sighed. "Yes?"
"Perhaps if ya told me what happened, I might recognise who attacked ya. Besides, the locals would enjoy a good tale."
Reddain sat back down. It was worth a try. He waited for the barman to finish calling the patrons over, sipping his ale as the clamour died. Taking a deep breath, he began. "We were just setting up camp. The moon was up. The sky was clear of clouds. The stars gave off bright white light....
...."Pass us the flints." Reddain pulled the moist straw closer to the pile of branches. He didn't want a repeat of the night before. He and By-o-rall had both fallen asleep, leaving the fire unattended. It had spread across the camp quickly, setting the saddle bags alight. They had woke in time to save most of their things, but they had lost two bags of food. They had spent that morning replacing it, before heading for the forest.
By-o-rall dumped the saddlebags on the ground and sat down next to his companion with a thump. He passed Reddain a tin box. "Something's wrong, Reddain. The horses are jittery and the air smells...bad. I think we should keep a watch tonight."
"Probably just the full moon." Reddain blew on the spark to get the wood burning. When he looked up he saw the seriousness in By-o-rall's eyes. "I'll take first watch."
A small smile crossed By-o-rall's lips. He rarely showed any emotion. Reddain often compared him to a stone. "What's there to eat?"
Reddain sighed. "Dried bread and a slice of meat. You'll have to put up with water, I couldn't find any tea." He poked the fire, getting the flames up. "That sound OK?"
"It'll do." By-o-rall unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall to the ground. He took out his dagger and began to sharpen it. He was a seasoned campaigner, having spent nearly twenty years in the service of the guard in his home town of Tar before joining up with Reddain. The man was in twenty-one, a good fifteen years younger than himself. By-o-rall couldn't deny he was handsome, he just wished Reddain wasn't so aware of it. Reddain was always entertaining women when they stopped at an inn. They had been chased out of the last village because Reddain had got involved with the mayor's eldest daughter. Apart from that one failing, By-o-rall considered his friend a good man. He was useful with a sword and he was a decent cook. By-o-rall couldn't have asked for a better travelling companion.
"Get this down you." Reddain shoved a plate up to By-o-rall's face. When By-o-rall took it he lifted his own plate. "So, uh, what sort of trouble are you expecting?"
By-o-rall shrugged. "Probably just bears or something. I don't think it's too serious, but it's best to keep a look out just in case."
Reddain nodded. The two continued to eat in silence. Reddain did not talk or joke as normal. If his friend felt danger, then there was danger near by. Reddain had learned to trust his friend's instinct after the first warning. Reddain had laughed when By-o-rall had told him he felt a tingle in his skin, saying it was the cold. He had learnt differently when they had been attacked by a band of brigands an hour later.
Darkness seemed to close in around the small campfire. The air became colder. It was as if the night itself were trying to take them. Reddain shivered and pulled a thick woollen blanket from the saddlebags. He wiped his empty plate with a damp cloth and returned it to the small wooden bow. Pulling the blanket around his shoulders, he stared at the fire, loosing himself in the flickering flames' strange dance. He was barely aware of By-o-rall replacing his own plate before examining the edge of his dagger.
A loud howl broke the silence. Reddain almost jumped out of his skin. Suddenly the night no longer seemed so welcoming. Peering around him he became aware of dark shadows hidden amongst the trees. His skin seemed to crawl as his ears picked up the sounds of the night creatures moving around the forest. The light breeze rustled the leaves. The horses whimpered. Reddain turned to his companion, eyes wide. "What...what was that?"
By-o-rall smiled, the curve of his lips almost mocking. "Wolves. Don't worry, they won't trouble us as long as the fire's lit." By-o-rall yawned. "I'm going to get some shut eye. Wake me in two hours if all's quiet. If you hear anything strange yell, I'm a light sleeper."
Reddain nodded. He got to his feet, letting the blanket fall to the ground. Taking a lit branch from the fire, he placed a wary hand on his sword hilt and began to pace the camp. It wasn't long before the sound of By-o-rall snoring came to his ears.
Reddain whirled towards the sound of a snapping twig. He swallowed hard, his blood pounding through his veins, and tiptoed over to the edge of the clearing. Peering into the darkness he saw nothing but undergrowth. The flickering light of the branch he held gave everything an eerie red tint. Taking a deep breath he returned to his patrol of the camp. He almost dropped the makeshift torch when he saw a branch move, then laughed quietly when he saw the rabbit scurry across the clearing. Shaking his head he looked up - and froze.
Before him was a giant of a man, carrying a huge club. Reddain felt his throat contract at the sight. The man must have been a good seven feet tall. The faint light showed that he wore a strange helmet that covered the top half of his head, except for his eyes. Reddain watched, motionless, as the man's lips parted and the sound of a wolf howling came from them. The man laughed wickedly and took a step forward.
"By-o-rall!" The laugh seemed to free Reddain from a trance. He threw the branch down and drew his long-sword, shouting to his friend again as he did so. He barely managed to get the blade up before the man was on him. He felt himself being forced back by the giant man, the only thing keeping the club from smashing his skull was the length of his blade. He searched desperately for a gap in the man's offence but could find none. He could here the sounds of a struggle from across the camp. He hoped By-o-rall had wakened in time.
Reddain's foot caught on a tree root. He stumbled and fell backwards, just managing to roll out of the way before the man's club smashed into the ground where his head had been. Seeing the outline of the man above him, Reddain thrust his sword up desperately. Feeling it bite into flesh, he shoved it even harder, using both hands. The man gurgled. Reddain yanked his blade free as the man fell, pinning his legs. Reddain took a deep breath. The sounds from across the camp had ceased.
Releasing his sword, Reddain pulled himself out from under the man's chest and scrambled to his feet. His legs felt numb from the man's weight. Giving them a shake, he retrieved his sword and looked around. There was no-one in sight. He moved across the camp warily and gave out a long sigh when he found By-o-rall's bedroll empty. At least his companion was alive somewhere. He quickly packed up the saddlebags and hoisted them onto his shoulders. It was then that he realised the horses were gone, their ropes cut. Reddain hoped that By-o-rall had escaped on one of the horses and was right now heading for the nearest village. He examined the ground but could find no trace of anyone entering or leaving the clearing.
Reddain sorted through the saddlebags, leaving anything that was not vital on the ground. He could not carry two men's provisions alone. After one last, quick look around the camp, he hoisted a single canvas bag onto his back and began the trek to the nearest village, not wanting to wait for another ambush. He did not look at the dead man again....
.....So I went from village to village looking for him, until I ended up here." Reddain peered into his mug. It was empty. He held it out to one of the waitresses to be refilled.
"Sounds like Ravine's men to me." The man next to him said.
"Ravine?" Reddain queried. "Does he live around here?"
The man laughed. "No, lad. It's said he owns a castle in that forest. Rumours have it that anyone who strays to close is captured by men like the one you described. It's rumoured he keeps them as pets." The man turned to Reddain. "They say he keeps some of them in cages on the castle battlements with the sole purpose of defending the castle." Reddain thought he saw the man smile. "It's just rumour mind you."
"Is the castle far from the edge of the forest?"
"About a mile in. Some people say there's treasure to be had there as well."
"You keep away from that place." Reddain turned to listen to the barman. "Nobody that's gone looking for this so called treasure has ever returned. If I were you I'd get as far away from there as possible. It's a bad place, a very bad place."
Reddain shook his head. "I must find By-o-rall. If there's even a slight chance that he's there I have to look." He made as if to leave
The barman shook his head. "If ya must go at least get yerself a good nights rest first. It's near sun down and ya look mighty tired. I've got a room free ya could use. Ya'll need more than just that sword o' yers as well. I'll see about a good bow an' some daggers. Get ya some decent boots."
Reddain sighed. The man was right. If he went as he was he'd have no chance of getting into a castle. "Very well. But you must let me pay in full."
The barman smiled. "You can pay me when you return. If you return, that is."
Reddain managed a meek smile. His stomach had tied itself in knots.
By-o-rall shook his head. It was fuzzy, as if he had had to much to drink. He looked up at the man before him. The man appeared to be seated on a throne made of solid gold. He was shrouded in red robes and wore a crown atop his hood. His face was hidden in shadow. By-o-rall could not remember coming here. He could not recall prostrating himself before this man like a servant. He shivered as he tugged at memories just out of reach. He could feel the man's eyes watching him.
"Shall we try again? What is your name?" The voice came from inside the hood. It was a deep evil voice.
"By-o-rall, sir." By-o-rall wondered what was wrong with him. He couldn't fathom why he had his head on the man's leather boots or why he called this man sir. He shuddered when the man shook his head. His skin crawled as the man reached out with a gauntletted hand. Pain exploded in his head at the man's touch. He was vaguely aware of his own screams although they seemed to come from far away. He heard the rumble of the man's voice but he could make out no words. When the hand was removed he remembered nothing. Placing his cheek back against the man's boot he realised he was crying.
"I am getting impatient with you." There was the hint of a threat in the man's voice. "This is the last time I shall ask. What is your name?"
By-o-rall whimpered. He wanted to serve, to please. He struggled with the fog that shrouded his brain. At last he remembered. "P-Payta, Master." Master? By-o-rall questioned himself. The hesitation lasted only seconds. Yes. The man is my Master and may name is Payta. He kissed the man's boot as if he were worshipping him.
"Very good." The man sounded pleased. His tone was like the tone of an owner praising his dog. "And what is your job?"
"To serve, Master."
"To serve how?!"
By-o-rall sobbed. He had not meant to make his Master angry. He did not like it when his Master shouted at him. "T-to defend the c-castle and p-protect you from those that would see you d-dead, Master."
"Excellent." The man crooned. He patted By-o-rall gently on the head. "Here is a reward for your co-operation." He reached into his volumous robes. When his hand came back out he held a square of rawhide. Placing it in By-o-rall's hand he said, "This should last you for a while. I will see you get another at feeding time."
By-o-rall smiled. He felt saliva dribble down his chin. "Thank you, Master. I will serve you well and - "
"Enough!" The man stopped the words with a shout.
The blood drained from By-o-rall's face. "I did not mean to offend, Master." He cowered on the floor, pushing himself as flat as possible. He quickly shoved his treat into a pocket in the hope that his Master would not take it back.
"It is all right, Payta. You are new to this. Just make sure it doesn't happen again. You do not speak without my permission unless it is to thank me. You will not let it happen again, will you Payta?"
"No, Master." By-o-rall felt tears well in his eyes. He didn't like being told off by his Master.
"Good." By-o-rall heard his Master's tone soften. He felt relief. "I am pleased with this meeting, Payta. I hope you continue to serve me well. You are very important to me, Payta."
By-o-rall smiled broadly, like a child that had just been given a sweet. "Thank you, Master."
"Dorn will take you to the battlements. He will show you where you will patrol and where your room is situated. You will be told the times you are allowed to sleep and when you will be fed."
By-o-rall looked over to the giant man at the doors. He was smiling. Was his smile mocking? By-o-rall turned his attention back to his Master.
"Kneel up so I can see your face better, Payta."
By-o-rall pushed himself up. He looked into the shadows of the hood, a little fearful.
"You will be given a crossbow when you get there, Payta. You will use it to shoot at anything that moves if it is not under my banner. That includes humans, Payta. If something gets within 20 meters of the castle you will report it immediately to your feeder. You will not wait until he comes to feed you, Payta. If you find a stranger on the battlements you will bind him and bring him to this room. I will let you have a dagger to stop any strangers with. Do you understand that, Payta?"
"Yes, Master." By-o-rall thought his Master's question had sounded sarcastic, but he knew his Master would not be sarcastic. He dismissed it as part of his imagination.
"I will watch you personally, Payta. You are very strong. If you are good I will make you one of my personal servants. Would you like that?"
By-o-rall grinned. "Yes, Master."
"If you betray me however...." The man let the words fade away. He watched as shock registered on his new pet's face, then let him weep for a while. "You will not betray me, will you?"
"No, Master." By-o-rall was horrified that his Master would think such a thing. He was loyal to his Master.
"I didn't think you would." The man paused in consideration. "You may visit the other defenders when it is not your turn to watch or sleep. I will let you talk with them, although some of them may not answer. That is one of the punishments I give out to those that are lax in their duties. I forbid them from talking to anyone but their feeder or myself. You will not be lax, will you, Payta?"
By-o-rall shook his head vigorously. "No, Master."
"You will not discuss the outside world, Payta. Do you remember the outside world?"
By-o-rall thought hard. He did not try to penetrate the fog this time. His Master had given him the fog. "Trees, Master."
"You may discuss trees. After all the clearing is surrounded by trees. Anything else?"
After a moment's pause By-o-rall spoke. "My mother, Master."
"You will not discuss your mother, Payta. You will remember her so I may talk with you about her. If you remember anything else you will tell your feeder. OK?"
"You will go with Dorn. You have my permission to rise."
"Yes, Master. Thank you, Master." By-o-roll got slowly to his feet. He remained bent at the middle in a bow as he backed towards the doors. His Master turned away from him. By-o-rall thought he heard him chuckle and wondered what was so funny.
"This way," Dorn commanded, opening one of the doors.
By-o-rall followed Dorn out of the room and fell into step beside him. He studied the man's hard face. His dark brown eyes were like flat, unreadable discs. He seemed handsome. His hair had been shaven so his helmet would fit better when needed. There seemed to be laughter playing across his lips. By-o-rall dropped his eyes when Dorn looked at him. It was rude to look at protectors or feeders. By-o-rall did not know how he came by that knowledge, it had just popped into his head. He kept his eyes on the floor.
When they turned into a smaller corridor By-o-rall took the treat from his pocket and looked at it lovingly. He lifted it to his mouth slowly and chewed on a corner, softening the tough hide with his saliva. He heard Dorn laughing and again found himself wondering what was so funny.
Reddain looked out from behind the large oak at the castle. It was around 300 metres from north to south, twice as far from east to west. After circling it three times he had found no way in except for the main gates. It was built of stone, without windows except for the thin arrow slits. The only choice he had was to scale the walls, which would not be easy. Guards patrolled the battlements in rotas, armed with crossbows. The only weak point was the rear wall. It was about ten meters wide and at least six high. It would be a tough climb. Reddain was glad of the strong boots and brown clothes the barman had provided. Unfortunately he would have to leave the bow behind.
Reddain started a slow walk towards the back of the clearing. He would cross it at dusk, just before the watch fires were lit on top of the battlements. There seemed to be only one guard on the rear wall, although the cages may hide more. Reddain shook at the thought of the cages. They were constructed of wood and appeared to have no way in or out. It was in one of these cages that he had thought he saw By-o-rall, although it was hard to tell from a distance. He had seemed to be sitting up, looking out into the forest. Reddain hoped he was not too late to save his friend. It had taken two days to find out about the castle, another three to find it and one more spent observing it from a distance. He had moved closer that morning. In all a week will have passed before he reached the cage.
Reddain came to a stop and turned back to the castle. His eyes searched for the cage in which By-o-rall had been. He saw a figure lying down, apparently asleep. He prayed it was his friend. Lifting his eyes he saw that the sun had dropped below the level of the trees. It was time to move. He pulled the bow from his shoulder and hung it in a tree. The quiver joined it. He would need them on his return. Drawing his dagger he placed it between his teeth incase he found the guard waiting for him at the top of the wall. He watched the guard walk his route twice more, waited for him to turn a third time then ran across the clearing. He felt his heart racing, his breathing was ragged. He slammed into the wall with a thump. He paused to listen. There was no calling, no sound of an alarm being raised. He had made it. Taking a deep breath he began to scale the wall.
Reddain watched as the guard's feet passed not more than a foot from his eyes, sighing in relief as the guard walked away. He counted the guard's footsteps. One, two, three....finally twenty. He let out a breath he had not realised he was holding and scrambled onto the battlements, thankful that his arms had held out He glanced around to make sure there were no other guards then checked that the one he had been watching still followed the same route. Thankfully he did.
Crouching, Reddain ran silently across the battlement towards the cage in which he had seen his friend in, hoping none of the other guards glanced in his direction. He froze when he heard the guard's footsteps cease. The sound of hushed whispers came to him, he could not make out the words. The watch fires burst into flame. Reddain hurried on.
Reddain drew up beside the third cage. He caught his breath, listening for the sounds that would tell him the guards were returning. There was only silence. Reddain put his face up to the bars to get a better look at the sleeping man inside. He almost laughed joyously. It was By-o-rall.
Reddain moved to the back of the cage, hoping to find a way in. He was surprised when he found a solid wooden door. He examined it carefully but found no lock or magical seal. With a shrug he gave the handle a tug. The door moved easily. Reddain hesitated. Why was there no lock? Unless the door could only be opened from the outside. That had to be it. Returning his dagger to its sheath, he pulled the door open and stepped in.
By-o-rall appeared to be in good health. There were no signs of beatings or starvation. His clothes were clean. He had washed recently. Again Reddain hesitated. Ravine appeared to treat his prisoners well. Reddain leant over his friend and lightly touched his shoulder. By-o-rall's sudden movement caught him by surprise. The shook had barely registered on his face when he found himself up against a cage wall on his toes, the point of a long dagger at his throat. He swallowed hard. "By-o-rall, it's me, Reddain."
"Why did you enter my room?"
Reddain felt goose bumps rise on his skin. He felt fear in the pit of his stomach. "This isn't a room, By-o-rall, it's a cage."
"Who is this By-o-rall?" By-o-rall eased the pressure on Reddain's throat slightly.
"You are." Reddain stared into By-o-rall's eyes. There was no sign of recognition, no sign of the man he had known. All Reddain saw in those deep eyes was a hint of fear and shining obedience. "You have to remember."
The point of the dagger drew blood. "Be quiet. You are violating the rules by being here. I must take you to my master. Remove your sword."
Reddain fumbled with the buckle of his sword belt. He heard it clatter to the floor. He felt like a fool. He should have known something was wrong when the door opened so easily. He had walked into a trap. The sound of the guard's footsteps was coming closer. "By-o-rall, please - "
"You have mistaken me for someone else. My name is Payta."
Reddain shuddered. Payta was a girl's name yet By-o-rall seemed proud of it. What ever had happened to his friend it would be put right. Reddain heard the guard burst into a run, he had spotted the open door. "Don't you - " Reddain halted as the point of the dagger dug deeper. He felt a trail of blood trickle down his neck. Watching By-o-rall remove his dagger, Reddain searched desperately for a way out. He could find none.
"What have we here?" It was the guard.
"This man entered my room. We must take him to the Master. I have removed his weapons."
"Back him up and I'll bind his arms."
Reddain moved as By-o-rall ordered, careful not to seem hostile. He put his hands behind him at the guards prompting. Rope bit into Reddain's wrists. By-o-rall moved to his back to get a better hold on him. The edge of the dagger lay at Reddain's throat as he was marched towards the stairs. Reddain swallowed hard. He was in trouble.
Reddain followed the guard through the double doors after a shove from behind. His eyes took in the room quickly. The walls were covered in great hangings, picturing scenes from battles. The floor was bare. The only piece of furniture was a golden throne set against the far wall. A man sat in the throne, shrouded by a blue cloak. His face was hidden in shadow. Reddain stopped in the centre of the room at By-o-rall's prompting. The guard had prostrated himself before the man, his head on the man's left boot. He jumped when large hands grabbed his wrists, he had not noticed the second man. The hands pulled on his wrists. Reddain thudded to his knees before his arms popped out their sockets.
By-o-rall ran to the man on the throne and handed him Reddain's sword and dagger before prostrating himself at the guard's side, placing his cheek on the man's free boot. The man's head rose. He pulled the hood from his head. Reddain saw shock register on By-o-rall's face, he guessed that this was the first time he had seen the man's face. It was a plain face but the eyes were beads of evil. They made the rest of his face fade away. Reddain knew he faced Ravine.
"Do you have his name?" Ravine's eyes focused on By-o-rall.
"He calls himself Reddain, Master."
Reddain gulped. By-o-rall was sucking up to Ravine.
"Where was he found?"
"I caught him entering my room, Master."
Reddain watched as anger glittered in Ravine's eyes. He thought he saw the grovelling men shake. Ravine's words took on some of that anger. "Why was he not found before?"
"It was my sleep period, Master."
Reddain was shocked to see By-o-rall crying. He tried to pull away from the hands, to help his friend. The grip only tightened.
"Why was your door unbolted?" Reddain had saw no bolts on the outside of the door. "You are supposed to bolt your door when you go to sleep."
"My feeder asked me to leave it unlocked, Master. He didn't want to wake me when he brought my food."
Reddain could hear the strain in his friend's voice. He struggled to get his feet. The man's arms encircled his chest and squeezed. He found himself gasping for air. His struggles ceased.
Ravine's eyes moved to the guard. "You were on watch?"
"Yes, Master." The guard was shaking even more than By-o-rall.
"Did you see him in the clearing?"
"Did you see him on the battlements?"
"You have failed me. You will not take your next five sleep periods. You will miss your next two feeding periods. You are forbidden idle talk until further notice. Report this to your feeder then return to your duty. Now!"
"Yes, Master." The guard got to his knees and crawled across the floor. Reddain heard the door shut behind him. He wondered if the poor guard would have been better off with his throat slit.
Ravine turned his attention back to By-o-rall. "What is troubling you, Payta? What did this man say to you?" Ravine pointed straight at Reddain.
"He...He called me By-o-rall, Master."
Ravine scowled. It was obviously aimed at Reddain but it seemed to affect By-o-rall anyway. "How did you answer?"
"I told him he was wrong. That my name was Payta, Master." By-o-rall was sobbing.
"Has he confused you, Payta?" Ravine's voice was gentler but he still wore the scowl. Reddain associated that tone with one a master would use on a sick dog. By-o-rall could only nod, his throat choked with tears. "Hush now, Payta. You have done nothing wrong. The man does not understand. It is not your fault." Ravine stroked By-o-rall's hair. "Do not cry." He took hold of By-o-rall's arms and pulled gently. "You may rise now. You did well today."
By-o-rall struggled to his feet with the Ravine's aid. He wiped his eyes harshly and sniffed. "Thank you, Master."
Reddain shook his head sadly. By-o-rall was not the type to show how he was feeling. It must have taken a lot to break him so, to make him behave like...like a dog. Reddain wondered what state he would be in when the monster was through with him.
"I don't like seeing you cry, Payta." Ravine's face had softened. "You did a good job to capture this man. He is the man that killed Dorn's brother." Reddain felt the arms around him tighten, heard the man growl. He guessed the man was Dorn. "This man will be placed in Dorn's service. I do not want this to upset you, Payta. He will not have an easy time. He will be paying for his crime. I expect Dorn to enjoy beating him for his crime." Ravine reached into the folds of his cloak. "I am afraid this is all I have right now. I will make sure you receive a proper reward later." He handed By-o-rall a small raw hide chew. "You may start it now."
"Thank you, Master." By-o-rall lifted the chew to his mouth.
Reddain watched Ravine as he watched By-o-rall. He saw laughter hidden behind sorrow. The sorrow was for By-o-rall, the laughter was for Dorn. "You sick - " Dorn's hand blocked Reddain's mouth. Reddain did not have the courage to bite it.
Ravine waved Dorn back. "Let the man speak. It's not often I get to speak to a man like him." Ravine got to his feet. He walked forward until he towered over Reddain. "You must be brave to come here. What do you want?"
Reddain spat at his captor. "I came to free By-o-rall, you dirty - "
Ravine stopped the words with a slap. "What would you say if I gave you a chance to free him?"
Reddain felt anger welling up inside him. He could hear Dorn's boots scraping the floor as if he were irritated. "You? Give me a chance to free him? Don't make me laugh!"
Ravine's eyebrows came together, his voice became firm. "I am deadly serious. Hidden somewhere in this castle is a ruby amulet much like this one," Ravine pulled a chain from around his neck. Dangling from the end was a teardrop shaped emerald that glittered and sparkled when it caught the light. "If you can find it you may be able to set your friend free."
Reddain's thoughts tumbled around his head in a jumble. Was it a trick? Or was Ravine genuine? "I suppose there's a catch."
"I will not let you roam the castle freely of course. Payta here will hound you. If he catches up with you he will return you to me. If you are caught you will not be given a second chance. It is as simple as that."
"And just how big is this castle?"
"I do not know exactly. It is three floors high and there are at least two floors underground. It is said they go on for miles. The choice is yours. Will you look for the ruby and free your friend?"
Reddain closed his eyes. He had been given little choice in the matter. If he did not go By-o-rall was lost. And so was he. "I will."
"Excellent." Ravine returned to his seat. "Dorn, will you see that he is provided for then take him to the main entrance."
Reddain felt the giant hands lift him to his feet. He turned towards the door and walked. It was going to be difficult. As the door shut behind him he heard Ravine speak again. "Payta, it is time for us to have a little talk."
Reddain followed Dorn through the maze of corridors, trying unsuccessfully to memorise the way they went. He would need to know as much about the castle as possible before starting his search. From what he could gather By-o-rall knew where all the major halls and meeting chambers were. That meant he knew a rough layout of the castle floors, giving him the advantage. Reddain shook his head. He had lost track of the number of turns he had taken on his strange journey.
"I do not know why he has chosen you." Dorn slowed to allow Reddain to walk at his side. "I cannot wait to get my hands around your scrawny little neck and break it."
Reddain looked up at the man's stern face. He had donned a helmet to match that of the man Reddain had killed. It made Dorn look ugly. "Who said you will get a chance to? I do not intend to fail."
Dorn laughed. It was a deep, evil laugh. "You are blind if you think you will find that ruby. You are not the first to try for it and I doubt you will be the last. Lord Ravine is toying with you. Giving a false sense of hope. Do not fool yourself, you will be my pet soon enough."
"I will never be your pet!" Reddain scowled vehemently. "I will never be anyone's pet!"
Dorn laughed again. The sound filled the long corridor, making it seem full. He grabbed Reddain's shoulder and shoved him forward roughly. They continued their walk in silence.
Reddain sank to the ground, panting for breath. He had been on his feet all night, searching through every room he came across. He was sure he had been in this corridor before. The inside of the castle was much larger than it seemed from the outside. He felt like he had walked for miles along hundreds of corridors, each one the same in appearance as the last. He could not say how many times he had crossed his own path. The castle was like a maze and he had not left the first floor yet.
Things had gotten worse about an hour ago. He had been walking down a plain, torchlit corridor, peering through all the arches to be greeted by more of the same when By-o-rall had appeared at the other end, dagger in hand. Reddain had turned and fled, hearing By-o-rall burst into a run behind him. He managed to lose himself running from corridor to corridor, twisting and turning. By-o-rall's footsteps had continued to haunt him, never slowing, never seeming to falter. Reddain had begun to wonder how long he could keep running when the fall of boots had abruptly ceased. Reddain glanced behind him to see if he was still followed and was shocked to see By-o-rall curled up in the middle of the corridor, apparently asleep. Reddain had not stopped to find out if he was. He had continued to run until his feet gave way beneath him where he sat now.
Reddain pulled the bag Dorn had given him open in the hope of finding something useful. He sighed in disappointment. It contained a few pieces of stale bread, some dried meat and two water bags. There was enough food to last him three days if he rationed himself. He took out a lump of bread and chewed on it thoughtfully. There had been no method to his searching, no routine. If he were to succeed he had to find a way to search more thoroughly. It was not easy with By-o-rall chasing him. Reddain shook his head. It scared him thinking of the way his friend was behaving. It scared him even more to think he would be the same if he failed.
The sound of footsteps reached Reddain's ears. With a sigh he forced himself to his feet, hoisting the bag to his shoulder. The footsteps were coming closer. Reddain glanced around desperately, he did not have the energy to run any more, he needed to sleep. His eyes scanned one wall, then the other, looking for some sort of recess. It was then that he saw it, a darker patch of shadow hidden in shadow. Walking to it he prayed it was not a dead end.
Reddain breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was a narrow, unlit corridor. He started to walk down it, tiptoeing lightly. He dared not take a light, it would only be a beacon for By-o-rall. As he walked deeper into darkness, Reddain thought he felt the surface change beneath his feet. His footsteps sounded lighter, as if he were walking on wood. He could no longer hear By-o-rall.
Bats flew out of the darkness in a flutter of wings. Reddain ducked, shaken. It took several moments for his breathing to become regular, his pulse to slow. Reddain waited to see if the bats had alerted By-o-rall. After what seemed like hours waiting in the pitch black he decided no-one followed. Reddain took a step forward and barely bit off a scream. The floor beneath him cracked and splintered. The sound of rotten wood snapping filled the air. Reddain found himself plunging downwards into darkness.
By-o-rall's walk slowed as he peered into the shadows. It had not taken him long to find Reddain's trail again after waking from his sleep. He had felt like he had been running for hours when his sleep period had started but now he was refreshed and ready for anything. He had followed the trail to this corridor only for it to disappear in the shadows. He sniffed the air for Reddain's scent but found nothing. It did not matter. He would continue to hunt until he found the trail again. And when he did the man Reddain would be his. He had no intention of failing his Master
Reddain opened his eyes slowly to be greeted by pitch blackness. He groaned as he turned his head. It felt like he had a huge lump on the back of it, as if he had been hit with a club. His left leg was throbbing. It took him a few minutes to realise why he was there. He had no idea how much time had passed as he lay unconscious on the floor. At least he was free of By-o-rall. The question was for how long?
As Reddain listened for sounds of possible pursuit he became aware of a faint light coming from behind. Pushing himself to a sitting position, he pivoted his head around to get a better look. Squinting he could just make out a wall and what appeared to be a doorway. Ignoring the pain that shot through his leg in jolts, Reddain forced himself to his feet. He had to wait for a wave of dizziness to pass before hobbling towards the light.
It seemed to take forever to reach the doorway, with each step bringing another stab of pain, but at last Reddain made it. Stepping through the giant arch, Reddain stared in awe. He was in a giant room, at least ten feet tall. In the centre was a long dining table laden with ornately carved golden dishes. Each side was lined by twelve carved wooden chairs. At the head of the table was a great silver throne, the back as high as Reddain was tall. Two glass chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling.
Reddain hobbled towards the table. He began to laugh hysterically. On the centre plate, atop a sheet of cured leather, lay the ruby amulet for which he searched. He could believe his luck. Reddain ceased laughing, realising he was becoming hysterical. He made his way to the table's edge, holding his breath. Reaching out with a shaking hand, he closed his fingers around the shinning gem. When he felt the cool stone in his palm he let out a deep breath, it was real. Hanging the amulet around his neck, Reddain examined the leather. Seeing writing he held it up for closer inspection. It read:-
Green giveth power, Red taketh away,
Together? Who can say?
Reddain folded the leather and tucked it into his pocket, wondering what it meant. He pulled out a chair and fell into it, feeling the affect of a day and night spent on his feet. He opened his bag and took out a strip of the dried meat. Chewing it, he pondered what to do next.
Dorn climbed the spiral staircase that led to the battlements of the rear wall. He did not always agree with his lord's tactics but he had to admit he found them amusing on occasion. He did not like the evil that flowed from the man. He had come here to appease his brother, not because he believed that his lord was right. He had considered fleeing the night his brother had died. It would have done no good. If he had got away he would have been hunted down and slain, either that or he would have been enslaven like the poor men that patrolled the battlements. It was all in the oath he had sworn. What made it worse was the fact that the man Reddain still ran free when he should be paying for the murder of his brother. It all made Dorn's blood boil.
Looking around, Dorn found the one he sought and fell into step with him. "How is the day?"
"All goes well, sir." The guard's eyes did not leave the clearing, his footsteps never faltered.
"My lord was harsh on you last night."
"I got what I deserved, sir. I failed in my duty."
Dorn shook his head. That was what he hated most about the enslavement, all self-respect was taken away leaving only blind loyalty. He knew what it felt like. Once he had failed his lord, as punishment his mind had been altered for three days, turning him into a fool. It was not something he wished to experience again. "Are you hungry?"
"A little, sir."
Dorn ground his teeth. The mans words were monotonous. They contained no emotion, no feeling. "Eat this." He shoved a small piece of cheese into the man's hand.
"But - "
"I won't tell if you don't."
The man smiled. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Dorn returned the smile. "I'll bring you more tomorrow." He headed back to the stairwell, leaving the guard bemused. It was time for him to return to his duties.
Reddain massaged his back. His muscles had tied themselves in knots whilst he slept. Yawning he pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the ache in his leg. He had left the great hall and walked for nearly an hour before he had felt safe enough to lie down in a small cul-de-sac to sleep. He had no idea what time it was, there was nothing down here but near darkness. If he remembered correctly Ravine's room was on the top floor, near the centre. All the corridors had seemed to lead to it. As Reddain saw it he would only get one chance and he was going to make the most of it. Now all he had to do was find the way out of this accursed blackness.
"You cannot run forever, Reddain. I will catch you."
Reddain lifted his head and sighed. By-o-rall was the last thing he needed right now. "You don't remember me, do you?"
"My Master sent me to take you." By-o-rall started forward, dagger in hand.
Reddain turned and fled. He could not see well in the dark, his foot caught on a loose stone. He stumbled, barely stopping himself from smacking into the ground. His legs were weary, he may as well not have slept. Running would do him no good, he had to bring By-o-rall back. He began to talk as he went. "Do you remember our last night together. You told me something was wrong. That you could feel it." Reddain could hear By-o-rall gaining on him, hear the man's heavy breathing. "We set up camp in a clearing. I built a campfire and cooked us some meat. There was a howl. You said it was just wolves. Surely you remember that?" Reddain heard By-o-rall slow. He risked a glance backwards and saw confusion on his face. "It was then that they attacked us. You were asleep."
Air fled from Reddian's lungs as he thudded onto the stone floor. By-o-rall had jumped him, grabbing his ankle. Reddain struggled to breathe. He could not afford to be caught. Not now. He pulled himself forward with his arms, trying to kick free. Lifting his head he saw a ladder on the wall, leading upwards. He was too close to be caught now.
"My Master warned me of this. He said you would try to confuse me with words." By-o-rall began to pull himself along Reddain's legs. Click here for alternative ending
"I'm not trying to confuse you, By-o-rall. I'm telling the truth." Reddain felt By-o-rall hesitate. That small hesitation was all he needed. "I'm sorry." With a grunt he slammed the heel of his boot into By-o-rall's gut. Feeling the man's grip loosen he scrambled free and dashed for the ladder, hoping he had not hurt his friend badly. He pulled himself up the ladder, not caring who was above. He had to reach Ravine's room and he had to do it soon. He just hoped the man was there, alone.
By-o-rall cursed. He had let Reddain escape. His Master would not be pleased. He got to his feet. Reddain was long gone, he just hoped the trail could still be followed. By-o-rall had chased him up the ladder and across the kitchen floor but the need for sleep had taken him. He had meant to take the man before his sleep period had come but he had proved too strong. He would be more careful next time. He would not let the man's strange words catch him out again. Sniffing the air, By-o-rall found the trail and began to run. He had an hour to make up.
Reddain bit back a cry. The pain in his leg was beginning to overwhelm him. If he did not find Ravine's room soon he would faint. He had managed to find a way inside the walls on the top floor. The tunnels were eerily quiet. It was unnerving. The dimness of the place didn't help. He occasionally passed peep holes that allowed him to see into rooms and corridors. The majority of places he saw were empty, but he caught an occasional glimpse of men, dressed much like Dorn, talking and laughing in small groups. He had rushed passed them, not wanting to be seen.
Reddain turned a corner and the sounds of voices reached him. He tiptoed forward, breathing lightly. The voices separated themselves. One, low and musical, he did not recognise. The second was Ravine. He moved forward more quickly, the sound of his own heart filling his ears. The air here was stuffy, as if the tunnels had remained unused for years. Reddain hoped that was true. He started to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation. They were discussing food. Reddain thought he heard something about stocks being low. Turning the corner he saw the tell tale light coming from the peepholes. He rushed over and put his eyes to them.
Inside the room the door was just closing. Ravine was seated in his throne, examining a pile of papers. He was frowning. Dorn stood at his post in front of the giant doors, eyes down. Reddain wondered if the man ever left. He prayed he did or else his plans would be useless. Reddain stifled a yawn. There had to be some way of distracting the big man.
Just then the doors burst open. Dorn was flung to the ground by the impact. By-o-rall ran in and threw himself down, skidding across the floor to Ravine's feet. "Forgive my intrusion, Master," he panted, breathless.
Ravine stood, face livid with anger. "How dare you burst in on me unannounced!"
By-o-rall shuddered. "Forgive me, Master. I was chasing Reddain and I found a hole in the floor he had fallen through but it was too deep to go down. I had to go round and when I got there he was at the entrance so I chased him but he got away so I followed his trail again." By-o-rall stopped, seeing impatience in Ravine's eyes. "He is here, Master," he blurted out.
"Find him!" Ravine walked passed By-o-rall, paying him no more attention. He came to a halt where Dorn was picking himself up off the floor. "Why did you not stop him?"
Dorn dropped his eyes, his face creased with worry. "Forgive me, sir. I did not hear him until the doorknob turned. I did not have time to react before it slammed me in the back. I am sorry, sir. There is no excuse for my lapse in concentration."
"I am very disappointed in you, Dorn. If your brother was here this never would have happened. He was twice the man you will ever be." Ravine turned away from Dorn, his face hidden from the peepholes. "It is about time you replaced him, Dorn. You cannot keep doing the work of two men. You will have that replacement with you on your next shift or you will never guard me again!"
Reddain heard Dorn sniff, saw him rub at his eyes as if removing unwanted tears. He felt sorry for the man.
Ravine whirled on Dorn. "Now what!?"
Dorn shook. "Nothing, sir. It's just that...When you mentioned my brother...I know I should replace him, sir. It's just that I miss him, sir. I know he is...was...better than me, sir. I have been watching for someone, sir. There is one man. Greg, sir. I will bring him with me, sir. I just...I'm sorry, sir." Dorn's head slumped forward. Tears dripped down onto the bare floor. His shoulders shook as wept silently. "Forgive me, sir," he whispered.
Ravine sighed. He placed a hand on Dorn's shoulder and squeezed gently. "I am the one that should be sorry, Dorn. I didn't mean to upset you. If you're not ready to bring a replacement in I will understand. You and your brother were close."
"I will bring him next shift, sir." Dorn wiped a bare arm over his face. "I will not fail you again, sir."
Ravine shook his head. "You look tired. Go and get some sleep."
"It is still my turn to watch, sir."
"Go, Dorn. It is only half an hour before your relief comes. I will be fine until then."
"If you are sure, sir." Dorn managed a small smile as he turned to leave. Ravine watched him go before walking over to a table that had recently been brought to the room. He seemed to be studying something on it.
Reddain smiled to himself. He could not believe his luck. Ravine had left himself open. Reddain moved his eyes. By-o-rall was standing by the opposite wall, studying the tapestries. He had a clear path to Ravine. Taking a deep breath, Reddain moved away from the peepholes. He began to feel along the wall for a catch that would tell him where the door was. His fingers brushed over the cold stone wall. As he neared an opening his thumb caught in hole. He felt around in it for the triggering mechanism. He caught hold of a small bar and pulled. There was a click and a section of wall moved inward slightly.
Reddain peered out of the small gap to see if anyone had heard. Ravine had not moved, By-o-rall was staring at the wall behind the throne. Taking the ruby amulet from around his neck, Reddain prayed his plan would work. He had realised that in the inscription on the leather the two colours revered to the two amulets. If one gave power and the other took it away he guessed that, when together, the two would cancel each other out, undoing any work the other had done. He only had one chance.
Reddain took a few long breaths to steady his nerves. He let the bag fall from his shoulder. After one last glance to make sure By-o-rall was out the way he yanked the door open. He saw By-o-rall turn, heard him shout a warning. It did not matter, he had one goal now. He ran across the floor, swallowing up the gap between him and Ravine. Ravine turned towards him. Time slowed. Reddain heard nothing as he leapt towards Ravine. It seemed to take him forever to reach him. His hands rose. The amulet glittered in the light. Ravine's hand rose to block him. Reddain forced the thin chain over Ravine's head.
Everything snapped back into motion. Reddain landed heavily on the floor. In front of him Ravine was shrieking, hands on his head. Beside the throne By-o-rall clutched his own head. Reddain barely managed to catch him as he collapsed, unconscious. The doors burst open and Dorn rushed in, sword drawn. He ran to Ravine, who was now on his knees. The shrieking had stopped but the man's face was contorted with pain.
Dorn whirled towards Reddain, sword raised. His face was a mask of fury."You will pay for this!"
"No, Dorn." Ravine raised a shaky hand. "It is over. Put the sword down."Dorn looked down at his Lord. He stood there for a while, undecided. At last his arm was lowered, the sword fell from his limp hand. "Now help me to my seat." Ravine pulled himself up on Dorn's outstretched hand. Leaning against the big man he crossed the small distance to his throne and sagged in to it wearily. "Now find the other protectors and arrange proper accommodation and food for everyone on the battlements."
"But - "
"Do it, Dorn. I will explain in the morning."
Reddain watched Dorn bow stiffly and leave, his walk showing his anger. He felt relief flood him, he would not have been able to stop the big man from running him through.
Ravine turned to Reddain. His eyes seemed different. There was a weariness that had not been there before, and a strange concern, all of which was overshadowed by pain. He kept rubbing his temples. "Behind the red tapestry is a door that leads to my bedchamber. You will find two beds. One is mine, the other was for my protector. You may sleep there tonight. You must be tired."
Reddain nodded thankfully. Ravine was right. Explanations could wait until morning.
Reddain rubbed his eyes as he sat up, yawning. He had laid By-o-rall down in Ravine's bed and checked he was comfortable before falling into the other bed, still fully clothed. He had fallen asleep the second his head hit the pillow. He did not want to rise again; the bed was lovely and soft, the room was warm. But his feet were itching to be moving again. "By-o-rall?" No answer. "By-o-rall." Still no answer. Looking over at the other bed, Reddain found it empty. He leapt from under the blankets and pulled the door open. When he stepped into the throne room he breathed a sigh of relief.
A round table had been brought into the room. It was laden with food. There was eggs and bacon, apples, bread, fresh nuts and more. By-o-rall was seated at it, stuffing his face. He nodded to his companion when he entered. A small, skinny man sat next to him. His face seemed vaguely familiar. Reddain guessed he was only a few years older than himself. Dorn stood guard at the door, another, smaller man at his side.
Reddain pulled a chair up and sat opposite the skinny man. "Ravine?"
The man nodded. He looked tired. "Tuck in. It is good food." Reddain did not hesitate to comply. He took a slice of the buttered bread and bit into it. He could feel Dorn's eyes on him. Ravine leaned forward, holding his head in his hands. "How did you know what to do with the amulet?"
Reddain shrugged. "Lucky guess." He watched Ravine as he ate. He could not believe how small the man was. "What happened to you?"
"It is complicated. I found the emerald when I was just twenty-three. After reading the inscription my greed for power led me to put the emerald on. It...changed me. I became evil. I started treating people like dogs, not caring for anyone but myself. I hired people like Dorn to protect me because I knew many of the people wanted me dead. I found I could manipulate people, control there minds. I began to turn my subjects into pets. At first part of me resisted but the more I did it the better it felt. I began to enjoy it, to make a game of it. Soon I couldn't stop myself. I've been wearing this thing for seventy-two years now. The more I used the power, the more evil I became. I knew the only way to stop it was to get the other amulet so I sent people in search for it. As time passed my reasons for sending people changed. It, too, became a game. When you put that amulet around my neck the power of the emerald was wiped out. I am myself again. I will not harm you."
Reddain swallowed the last of the bread. "How do you feel, By-o-rall?"
"I'm fine." By-o-rall grinned. "I feel a little stupid though, chasing you like some thief. I'm sorry lad."
"You had no choice." Reddain unshelled one of the hard boiled eggs and popped it into his mouth.
"Thanks for coming back for me."
"I wouldn't abandon you, By-o-rall." Reddain rubbed his mouth clean. "Where do you fancy going next?"
By-o-rall laughed. "I would have thought you'd have had enough adventuring to last you a life time."
"Me? Never. Besides I owe a barman some money."
"I will provide you with supplies and money when you leave. It is the least I can do." Ravine got to his feet, wobbling slightly. "I have a favour to ask." He made his way to Dorn's side. "Take this man with you."
Dorn's face paled. "Sir? I don't want to leave."
"It's time to stop pretending, Dorn. I know how you feel about serving me. You only ever swore that oath to me because of your brother. You followed him in everything. There is no need for you to stay now."
"How - ?"
"The feeders told me about your little visits to the defenders I punished. I know about every time you gave one extra food. Why do you think I punished you so harshly when you revealed who you were to an outsider? Because I knew that if I didn't you would have fled. You are free to leave, Dorn."
"Thank you, sir." Dorn removed his helmet. "I would be happy to go with them."
Reddain's eyes widened. "I thought you wanted to kill me because I took your brother's life."
Dorn sat down on the floor. "I have been thinking about that a great deal. I see now that you had no choice. It will be interesting to travel with you."
"Any objections, By-o-rall?"
"None." By-o-rall was getting his teeth into a red apple.
Reddain grinned. "Boy, have we got a tale to tell." Reddain dug into the feast before him as though he hadn't eaten for a week. A few more hours in the castle would make little difference.
By-o-rall slung a length of rope around Reddain's ankles and bound them securly. Ignoring Reddain's struggles, he quickly restrained the man's wrists. Checking to make sure that his prisoner could not escape, By-o-rall curled up and fell asleep.
By-o-rall knocked gently on his master's door. It slid open silently and By-o-rall dragged his prisoner, still struggling futily, into the throne room. Handing his prisoner to Dorn, By-o-rall prostrated himself before his master.
Ravine leant forward and patted the one he had named Payta on the head. His eyes never left Reddain. "You have done well, little Payta. You have done very well indeed. I will make sure you well rewarded. You must be hungry. Take this to your feeder," Ravine gave his pet a small token, "and you will be fed."
Ravine turned his attention to Reddain. "I have enjoyed watching you. I found your search rather... amusing." He reached forward and removed the amulet from around Reddain's neck. It disappeared in a puff of smoke. "But now, I fear, your hunt has ended." Ravine leant forward and placed a hand on Reddain's head. The assault began.
An hour later Reddain was huddled against a stone wall in a tiny cell. Only his name wasn't Reddain, it was Lairn. And all he knew was that he had been very, very bad.
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