The black-robed rider passed through the gates of the Dark Lord’s tower and dismounted in the courtyard. He strode up the steps, and into the great hall, brushing dust from his robe with his
The Master’s steward, dressed entirely in black, stood at the base of the grand stairs. The old man waved upward. “This way, Milord. The Master awaits.” The servant turned
and walked with a slight limp up the stairs.
The rider ignored his exhaustion and the dank smell of the tower and followed the steward. On the second floor they entered a doorway and climbed narrow, winding stairs to the top of the
tower. Only two torches, one at the bottom and another at the top, illuminated the way. He was sure he heard small feet scurrying in the darkness midway up.
The overcast afternoon sky allowed little light through the three windows of the Master’s chamber. The small flame from a brass burner heating a beaker cast dark shadows around the
room. For a moment the rider thought he was alone, but then the Master stepped out of the darkness. Face hidden within the cowl of his black robe, the Master was a shadow figure in a
“Ah, Brother Fulradt, here at last. My plan is moving forward as expected. It’s time for you to leave with the vials of the sickness I’ve prepared.” The Master moved across
the cold room to his workbench and lifted the beaker to examine its contents.
“I had to modify one element of the plan. An old enemy has reappeared to meddle in my affairs. So the brothers assigned one critical component are now otherwise occupied. Their
task must fall to you.”
The Master turned from examining the beaker to Brother Fulradt. “There’s a prisoner who must arrive in Ellisland alive and in decent health at a key moment. Pick your best
brother and a few trusted men to guard him.”
“Yes, Master. Where will I find this prisoner?”
The Master returned the beaker to the flame. “Here, in my dungeon. Keep him aboard a ship in the fleet until the time is right.” He turned back to Fulradt. “Take no risks
with him. It is crucial that he’s alive and aboard the flagship when we begin our attack.”
“Yes, Master. Who is he?”
“Never mind that.” He turned back to the beaker. “Neither you nor your men will speak to him or he to you. If he tries, gag him. He has a—certain way with words.” The
Master’s hand waved like wheat in a breeze. “He can be gently persuasive to even the most dedicated brother. His tongue almost freed him and cost a brother and two guards their lives.”
The light from two homemade clay oil lamps flickered over Gamaliel, son of Hillel, as he lay prostrate in prayer at the back of his cave. His long, unkempt, gray hair and beard rested in the
dirt as he beseeched his god to remove the illness afflicting the capital city far from his mountain retreat. But while God had shown him the sickness in a vision, He had not yet answered
Gamaliel’s prayers for the removal of the pestilence.
As the old man prayed, the image of a young rider on a galloping horse formed in his mind. The shield slung over the rider’s back bore the colors of the Elect. A moment later he
envisioned a wolf prowling around a campfire.
The wolf, an opportunist, would take what prey it could. The rider was in danger. Gamaliel rose to his feet despite his sixty winters, and brushed off his gray homespun robe. The
dark presence he had sensed still lurked at the crossroad where the trail leading to his cave met the road between the Freemen’s capital, Bar Krouth, and the land of Mercia. Snatching his
walking stick, he strode from the cave into the bright sunlight and hurried down the steep mountain trail toward the crossroad half a league away.
The narrow path wandered through the rocky hills and ravines to the base of the mountain and the heat of the summer sun on his heavy wool robe soon had Gamaliel sweating. “Lord,” he prayed
softly, “if it be my pride, and not your power, which sends me into danger, I pray a true prophet warn the people. It is not their sin that I am a weak and flawed vessel.”
As his path wound down the mountainside he caught glimpses of the trees at the crossroads but did not see anyone. However, the sense of evil lurking in the stand of oaks was strong. A
dark presence waited there and it would not be long before the young messenger arrived. At least if I fall, he thought, the dark one has no reason to harm the lad. But
reason is never strong in those of the dark. “Protect the lad, Lord, I beseech You. Turn the Dark One from violence.”
He pushed aside a large bush to reveal the road and the woods on the other side. “Why hide yourself in the shadows on such a sunny day? The light will do you no harm.”
A horse’s hooves echoed before the horse and rider emerged from the darkness beneath the trees. “It’s cooler in the shade.” The rider was a middle-aged man dressed as a Mercian
trader in dark brown wool pantaloons and knee-high black leather boots. His matching long, split-tailed coat revealed the sword at his side. His broad-brimmed hat sat at an angle on his
head to partly conceal a face covered in a neatly trimmed beard. “I’m but a simple merchant from Mercia resting on my way to Bar Krouth.”
“I know who you are. Just as I know what you wish to keep from me. Darkness has loosed a sickness among my people and a messenger comes to summon me to the council.”
“So you’re intuitive, Gamaliel.” The rider’s horse continued toward the old man. “You would have been wiser to avoid rather than confront me.” His right hand pulled a wand with a
crystal mounted at the base from his sleeve and pointed the gold tip at the old man.
“I do not fear you or your master, servant of darkness.” Gamaliel stood still and looked into the man’s eyes. “I fear only God.”
Lightning flew from the end of the dark wizard’s wand, but didn’t touch the old man. A pale-blue light surrounded him so that he was bathed harmlessly in the lightning of the curse.
Gamaliel felt the spirit touch him and cried out, “Behold the power of God. You have no dominion over His servants. He only has dominion over all that is.”
The wizard’s horse reared up, nearly throwing the rider. The old man cried, “Go, while you yet live. Tell your dark master that the Lord, God of Freemen, sayeth, ‘Behold your doom, for
the child of derision cometh as surely as day follows night. Though victory seems at hand, your host will be broken and all your domain cast down.”
The wizard’s horse bolted west on the road toward Mercia while its rider fought for control. The old man watched until the horse and rider were out of sight, then turned east, to walk in the
direction of the messenger. “Forgive me Lord,” he prayed softly, “for enjoying his distress. The victory was Yours, not mine.”
He had traveled no more than ten minutes when the youth galloped toward him dressed in the tabard of the Elect. The rider dismounted as his horse was coming to a stop and went to his knee in
front of the prophet. “Hail, Gamaliel, Prophet of the Lord, the Elect begs you attend his council in Bar Krouth.”
“Kneel only to God.” Gamaliel gripped the young man’s shoulder and pulled him to his feet. “And don’t praise the harp for the music of the poet—‘tis but an instrument.” He shook
his head sadly at the look of reverence on the boy’s face. “Ride back to the city and tell the Elect that The Lord of All has told me of the sickness and I am on my way.”
Benami, son of Tomer, Elect of the Freemen, squirmed in his chair. Tall and slender, his black, tightly-woven woolen trousers and jacket were too tight in his opinion, and the neck ruffle on
his starched white shirt itched. For the thousandth time he wondered why he let his wife select his clothing. Out loud, he wondered, “When will Gamaliel get here? He was reported
in the city half an hour ago.” He rose and strode to the large window of the council room.
Behind him, Rachamim, the heavyset, old high priest, his formal robes overflowing the end chair, said, “Peace, Elect.” The old man looked over his shoulder and stroked his long, untrimmed
white beard. “You know he walked the whole way. It’ll take him some time to walk this last short distance.”
“Why can’t he ride in a coach like a civilized man?” He turned back to the room. “People are dying.”
“He will be here in his own time.” Rachamim adjusted himself in his seat. “It doesn’t matter to him that people die. All men die. To him, all that is important is whether
they lived a just life in the eyes of God.”
“Well, I have to be concerned about whether people live or die. As Elect I’m responsible to God for the people. How can I know what God wants me to do if His voice in this world isn’t
here to tell me?”
Rachamim stood and turned to the Elect. “God doesn’t want you to rely on what Gamaliel says for your decisions. You should know the right thing to do yourself. Prophets are sent
to bring us back to righteousness when we stray, not to make our decisions for us.”
Benami rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Do you think I don’t know that?” He glanced at the six merchants seated three to a side at the long council table. “It’s just that,”
his voice softened, “what I think I should do touches on the Laws of Doron.”
A loud knocking on the door pulled Benami’s eyes to the source. “Enter.” His voice louder than he intended.
The door opened and the captain of the guard stepped into the room. “The prophet Gamaliel has arrived.” He quickly stepped aside. The old man walked into the room still dressed in
his trail-dirty gray robe and sandals. He stopped in front of the council table and bowed his head slightly. “You have asked me to come. I am here. What would you have of
Benami strode around the table to put his hands on the old man’s shoulders. “The will of God in this matter of the sickness. What should I do?”
Gamaliel looked up slowly. “Love God above all else, and love others as you love yourself. That is the will of God.”
“Gamaliel.” The Elect’s voice shook. “Don’t riddle me. I need your wisdom, now more than ever. People are dying. Little children are dying.” His head
drooped. “And there is nothing I can do to stop it.”
“When there is that which he cannot do alone, the wise man calls forth his allies and says, ‘I have aided you in your time of need. Aid me in mine.’” Gamaliel, still holding his walking
stick in one hand, brought both of his own hands up and placed them on the Elect’s shoulders. “There is righteousness and wisdom beyond the Freeholds if you know where to look.” When
Benami looked up, Gamaliel added, “Send to him and say, ‘The Lord sayeth you have been tested and not found wanting. As you have aided those of Cymru, so will you be aided in your time of
need. Fear not to send forth from your house the aid My people need.’”
Relief washed over Benami as he dropped his arms and whispered, “So sayeth the Lord, God.”
“No,” Gamaliel replied as he lowered his own arms. “So sayeth Gamaliel, son of Hillel. If I speak truth, it is because God has guided my tongue. If I prove wrong, it is not the
Lord’s fault that I am an imperfect vessel.”
Benami smiled slightly. “You’ve never spoken falsely, son of Hillel.” He took a deep breath. “What should I tell the people?”
“Remind the people that it has been too long since they remembered Halone the Sorcerer, who freed Doron from his prison when he was sentenced to death, and later died to protect him in his exile.”
Benami nodded his head and took a deep breath. This problem resolved for the moment, the image of Shachar’s smiling face standing at the bow of his ship the day he sailed filled his
mind. He whispered, “Do you have any other hope for me?”
The old man shook his head. “The dead remain dead and the lost remain lost, but I have felt no need to pray peace upon the soul of your son. Hold tight to the mercy of God, and continue
to pray that the lost shall not remain lost.” Gamaliel put his free hand on the Elect’s shoulder. “I must go among the people and urge them to pray this plague is lifted from us.”
He turned and walked out of the room.
When the door closed, Benami turned and walked slowly back to his seat at the table as the loss of his firstborn son subsided to its normal ache in his heart.
“As cryptic as ever.” Matan, a well-dressed, heavyset old merchant with a large fleet shook his head. “So what did he mean this time?”
Benami dropped into his chair at the head of the table and looked first to the three merchants on the right, then to those on the left. “This sickness has been a matter for the city so
far. So the representatives of the freeholds have not been asked to attend this council.” His gaze centered on the high priest. “But the solution involves the meaning of the Laws
of Doran. If the city is not with me, what hope do I have of convincing the farmers that I’m right to do what must be done?”
Rachamim cocked one eye toward him, and Benami was sure the old priest suspected why he had called the prophet. After a few seconds the priest turned quickly to the door, then back to
him. “You plan to bring a wizard into the land, to walk among the people of God, and Gamaliel has agreed.” He came to his feet. “The temple will have no part in this.”
“Sit down, Rachamim,” Benami snapped. “This is no time for one of your holier-than-thou speeches. Have you forgotten the pestilence arrived first on temple ships?”
“Thou shall not touch a stone of power. They are tools of slavery!”
“I know the law.” Benami waved his hand at the old priest. “I’m not asking you to touch one.” He shook his head. “None of the people will touch the stone. It will
simply be within our borders for a period of time.”
One of the merchant princes of Bar Krouth leaned forward. “You seriously plan to bring a wizard into the Freeholds? The people will revolt.”
“No,” Benami snapped. Then he waved his hands in front of him. “I mean to bring in a foreign dru—who also happens to be a wizard. She carries a healing stone of great power.
Even King Garthen sent for her when his queen was ill and dying, but she arrived too late.”
Matan looked at the door and then back to the Elect. “And Gamaliel said it was allowed?”
“Yes. Did you not hear him say he would remind the people that Halone the Sorcerer followed Doron? Neither Halone nor his stone of power were evil. God told Doran to forbid the
people from holding stones of power because they were instruments of our slavery, not because they were evil. Did not wizards join us in our fight for freedom? Did not even many of the
Old Ones renounce their false gods and join us in the war?”
Benami stood up and walked slowly around the table. “We are the people God chose to set free, so that we could show all men the way to freedom. We live apart because we must keep His
laws pure, not because we are better than other men.” He stopped and put both hands on the back of a chair and looked into the face of the merchant, who turned to look up at him. “Do
not the Doonnaugh Clan of the Garruth still wear the armor we gave them to fight in? Does not King Garthen of Anglia still respect the rights of our merchants in his lands, as did his
predecessors in the Confederation of Clans before him?” He walked along the table until he stood in front of the high priest. “Do not the Hawklanders move freely among us, as we do
among them, despite their adherence to the gods of the Old Ones? We are free because they stood and bled with us against the Mercians. We are as brothers.”
Rachamim nodded. “And is it to King Ragnon of Hawkland you intend to appeal? It is said that his daughter is both beautiful and the bearer of a stone of power.”
“So it is said.” Benami nodded and then looked out the window. “And I have reason to believe both are true.”
Rachamim stood up. “The temple will not speak against the daughter of Ragnon. She is known to us as a righteous woman and a dru of some ability despite her youth.”
Benami looked, but didn’t know which council member had spoken. “She’s just seventeen years old, but already her fame as a dru has spread. She carries an elfin stone. The only one
known to exist. It is said it was given to her by the queen of the elves before she died.”
Someone else asked, “Will her father let her come?”
Benami looked at Rachamim. “I pray so. She’s our only hope.”
Dressed in her dark blue gown, with her shiny black hair tumbling over her shoulders, Princess Evaughnlynn sat statue-like in a garden chair with her eyes closed while the castle children played
around her in the grass.
Her cousin, Roselyn, watched quietly from her own seat with her hands folded on the lap of her green gown, her reddish-blond hair tumbling over her shoulders. Concern for her royal cousin
filled Roselyn’s mind. In the year and a half since the battle in the forest against the orcs, rumors of dark wizards and Jutland agents searching for Phylon had reached Hawk’s Keep with the
arrival of courtiers almost monthly.
Worse yet, Prince Thrall had arrived for the Handfasting ceremony two months earlier and had been more of a bore than when they had traveled to Anglia for his step-mother’s funeral. Roselyn
had found herself so upset by his treatment of her cousin she had confronted Evaughnlynn about cancelling the marriage, but Evaughnlynn had insisted on going through with the handfasting ceremony,
the first of two marriage ceremonies, and was now technically married to Thrall.
Since then Evaughnlynn had become even quieter and rarely smiled. Her unbounded optimism and happiness were gone.
Roselyn understood a little of her younger cousin’s loneliness. Since Beowyn was made his father’s lieutenant, she rarely saw him and missed him terribly. He was constantly busy or on
patrol in the time since their return. Her uncle, King Ragnon, was convinced it was only a matter of time before the dark wizards struck again, and had doubled the number of men-at-arms and
strengthened all the border posts.
Suddenly, Princess Evaughnlynn stood up and opened her eyes. “Come, Rose, a messenger has reached the watchtower on the road from the Freeholds. My father will send for me soon and I
must appear dressed as a dru, not a girl of privilege and leisure.”
Roselyn changed into her white wool robe and the pale blue headdress that covered her long hair, then joined her cousin in her high tower room at the corner of the keep. Evaughnlynn,
similarly dressed, stood by the window looking to the south road. “Beowyn is bringing nine riders from the Freeholds to Hawk’s Keep for a meeting with my father. It’s as I’ve
expected. The dark moves against the Freemen first in this war. They are here to ask our help.”
Roselyn felt herself blush. “Beowyn is coming?”
Evaughnlynn turned from the window. “He has said nothing to my father. The boy’s as thick as the stone of Hawk’s Keep.”
“Or he just doesn’t love me that way. We’ve been raised as cousins from birth, and he paid Morrigan a lot of attention on the trip back from Anglia.” She stepped next to her cousin to
look out the window to the south. “Perhaps when we reach Anglia after your marriage I’ll find someone as well.”
“He has no interest in Morrigan, as pretty as she is. She’s a clinging vine, whose first care is for herself.”
Trail dust rose above the trees to the south and then riders crested the hill to gallop down the open road. Beowyn was in the lead, dressed in his armor with the badger crest. Riding
beside him was a man in overlapping ring armor like that worn by the Garruth she had seen in Anglia. In front of eight foreign warriors was the large form of Sergeant Bullnose riding beside
an older man, who reminded her of Sir Lares for a moment, before she recalled that he went to Jutland to retrieve his stone of power, and was not killed in the battle with the dark wizards who led
the orcs, as her uncle had told the others.
Her stone of power grew warm against her breast as she sensed a time of great danger approaching. Sorcha, her cousin’s stone, was teaching her stone about the Freemen and she realized they
would be going to the Freeholds.
© Copyright 2020 R. M. Keegan. All rights reserved.