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The Chronicles of Darius

One

The wind begins far to the north, in the land named Aetherian by the Elves, and Kistane by the Men of the west, and Juk by the Dwarves under the mountains of stone. Over the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the endless mountains known as the Dragon’s Teeth does it swirl, gaining strength and ferocity, turning chill and gathering unto itself ice and snow before hammering down on the white towers of Arador, home to the High King of a once great nation. Across the grasslands it loses most of its potency, dropping the remainder of snow and ice on the farms scattered here and there across the landscape before sputtering on to the golden trees of the Elven forest Aeon, rustling it’s leaves with its passing. Even that fabled land, dark and foreboding in its silence, cannot completely diminish the winds power. Slowly it crosses the rivers Thebadeon, Argos and White Water as they are known in the Common tongue, to come at last to the top of a broken down tower near the Blue Sea, nestled within the Haunted Forest, called by those who live near it the Wizard’s Keep; a name rarely spoken without some warding gesture to protect ones’ soul from evil…..

There it stirs the moustache of an old man, all its power and strength reduced down to a breath, yet still enough to wake him from his slumber. Beneath bushy gray eyebrows, wrinkled eyelids crack to reveal keen blue eyes still sharp and bright from a fire burning within. Long does he stare North, some elusive shadow of a threat present upon that wind, awakening instincts too long unused and mistrusted. Yet even as far as his sight extends, there is naught to see. Yet, something nagged at his mind, something he couldn’t place - something that stirred memories.

Slowly pushing himself up from the rocking chair, his woolen blanket falling away as he stands, his movement wakes the old tabby cat curled at his feet. He clutches his robe tightly as he steps to the low wall at the towers’ edge while the cat extricates itself from the blanket, stretching lazily, completely ignoring the old man, concerned more with some odd bit of dirt found and working loose in its paw. Out beyond the broken down castle wall, past the brown field that once held crops and farmers though not even the ground remembers them now, past the trees of the Haunted Forest, old and thick with vines and moss, the old man stares. Something has changed suddenly and irrevocably. Sorrow, he can sense; pain and suffering. Death.

The old man sighs heavily, the weight falling on his shoulders again. How long ago had he stopped his travels? How long since the aches and pains of his aged body had become too much to bear upon the open road? Ten years? Twenty? After a while, days turn to weeks, weeks to months and months blur into years uncounted. He had been so sure that his time was over, had convinced himself of it when he had come to this place, the Wizard’s Keep, to live out the remainder of his years in peace and solitude, well away from the troubles of the outside world. And now the world was calling to him, awakening him from his much earned slumber.

With that, he realized that company was riding to his door once again.

Gnarled hands grasped at a twisted cedar staff as the old man carefully picked his way down the crumbling stairs that snaked around the tower, grumbling to himself as the old tabby lightly hopped down the stairs with ease, pouncing on a dried weed at the base of the tower – obviously a dangerous threat that needed killing. He kept close to the tower wall, hand grasping vines here and there for support, avoiding the more decayed edges even as his mind wondered about his approaching guests. They were there now, at the edge of his mind, slowly moving closer. Who they were, he wondered, and what lands did they call home? What events had forced them upon the road in search of him? Such thoughts had once fueled his travels and the prospect of company began to stir his mind again. The cat met him at the base of the tower, quickly circling his feet back and forth as he rested for a moment against the tower wall to catch his breath. Damnable cat, he thought even as he reached down to scratch it behind the left ear – a favored spot. The cat purred in response and the old man sighed.
Shuffling across the inner courtyard, leaning heavily on his staff and already planning a dinner for his guests, the old man let part of his mind consider again who they were and where they came from. A small smile crept slowly across his face as he entered the keep.

 

Two

 

“Two!” the old man announced to the cat as he held a carrot out over the cook-pot. He searched the table for the knife he’d had just a moment ago even as the old cat ignored him, curled up on the kitchen table, basking in the only sunbeam creeping in through the kitchen window. The shudders were broken and would not open, so only a few shafts of sunlight peeked through the gloom of the little kitchen. He found the knife on the smaller table to his left and grumbled to himself about kitchen tools moving of their own volition before quickly slicing the carrot and adding the pieces to the bubbling stew. He followed it with a bit of wild onion he’d found near the south wall.

“Imagine it,” he continued, searching through the spices on the shelf above the sink. He wanted the red container and he was sure he’d replaced it the last time he’d used it, some three weeks before, but now it wasn’t where it should be. “Two visitors when we’ve not seen a soul in –“ he paused and looked at the cat. “How long has it been?” The cat didn’t stir, but he noticed the red container sitting on the table next to it. “Ah! There you are!”

He set the knife on the large table and grabbed the spice container. The cat stood suddenly and stretched, front paws extending out first followed by the back paws before it lay back down, now stretched out on its side, one eye watching the old man while the other slowly closed. The old man saw none of this, his attention drawn to the mixture of spices within the red container as he sprinkled first a small amount and then a whole handful into the stew. He took the larger wooden spoon from the hook on the wall and slowly stirred the spices in.

“Hmmm,” he said to the cat. “This is starting to smell very good.”

The cat whipped its tail against the table.

“Twenty-three years?” he asked the cat. “Has it been so long? Yes, I suppose it has. Twenty-three years. Hmmm. That incident with the Dragon Egg and the Slayer, as I recall.” He continued to stir the stew, absently staring at his bubbling concoction. He saw many things within the steam rising from the stew – a city in the trees, a burning building, a severed hand, a man with no future, a mask of steel, a broken crown, a mewling baby, a wolf walking like a man and feasting upon the blood of the living. He blinked and the images faded. He sniffed at the stew and frowned. “Not too soon,” he said absently. Steadying himself with a hand on the table, he bent over and blew on the fire below the cook-pot and then watched as it lost some of its intensity. Another breath and the fire cooled until he was satisfied, only a few licks of flame now emerged from the glowing embers of the wood.

“Much better,” he announced to the cat. “Now for the cheese.” He had already fetched the cheese from the cellar and placed it on the table. It wanted only to be sliced and he reached for the knife, only to find it was not on the large table where he thought he had left it. Instead, he found it on the small table to the left of the cook-pot. Shrugging, he grabbed it and made short work of the cheese, piling the slices neatly on a platter for his first guest.

“More than enough,” he said. “Only one tonight, you see?” he asked the cat. “Very sad, this one. There is much tragedy in his past, and I fear even more in his future.”

Again, the cat whipped its tail on the table.

“An hour,” the old man said quietly. “Perhaps two.” He sighed. “Definitely before dark.” He clapped his hands clean and the cat jumped and stared at him with wide eyes. The old man ignored it and pulled the cork from the wine bottle pouring himself a cup. He drank it slowly, savoring the flavor as it slid across his tongue. He fell into his chair and watched the cat for a moment as it began to clean and groom itself.

“There is much pain in him,” he said absently. “And yet I sense a coldness akin to steel. He’s wrapped himself up in the pain, walling away his emotions to protect himself. The questions are: what is he running from? What is he protecting himself from, hmmm?

“Sunset,” he said more confidently. He stared at his half-raised cup, the red wine inside suddenly looking too much like blood for his taste. The ill mood faded as quickly as it came and he finished the wine with a gulp.

“A room must be prepared,” he said to the cat. “How I let that slip my mind I’ll never know.”

Taking up his staff, he quickly shuffled out of the kitchen, the old tabby cat hopping lightly off the table and following after. The knife slowly rose and floated to the small table to the left of the cook-pot – neither cat nor man saw it move.

 

Three

It was four hours later when the old man heard the first rumblings of a horse cutting through the twilight quiet of the Haunted Forest. The steady clip-clop of hooves upon the road reached his ears as he stood in the courtyard with the cat at his side. He had swept the majority of the dust and dirt from the castle steps and now stood just inside the main gates. The portcullis was up and the gates were open wide – which wasn’t unusual. They were always open these days. There was no need to close them as no one visited the Keep anymore, and the old man could hardly work the winch on the portcullis nor budge the heavy wood gates these days.

The old man drew patterns in the dirt with the butt of his staff as the sound of the horse drew closer. With the patterns came sensations; a war-horse, he felt as he listened with both his ears and his mind. Well trained and cared for, walking proud and steady, speaking volumes about his or her owner. Most of the men he’d known to call themselves Knight cared little for the beast they rode, giving such care over to squires and peasants rather than to do it themselves. Yet he did not think that this man would give such duties to another – this man understood the bond between horse and rider to be an important one. After all, it could mean life or death to the rider should the horse resist him during a battle. This rider did not style himself as a Knight.

No sound did the rider make which touched his ears. There was no rattle of chain or plate, no chink of spur. If he wore mail of any kind, he wrapped it in leather and cloth so it made no sound and caught no light from sun or torch. He was used to being unseen, staying to the shadowed paths other men feared to tread. This disturbed the old man. One did not stay in the shadows and come away untouched and unharmed. Dark things lived in the shadows, corruptors of souls.
The old man erased the pattern he’d drawn with a sweep of his shoe and began another. The cat sat staring at the gate. His eyes closed, the old man listened deeper for the rider. Black was the garb that covered him from head to toe, and dark was the mood surrounding him. Cold were his eyes and he wrapped himself in death as tightly as he wrapped himself in leather and wool. Yet he did not feel unclean, as someone touched by the darkness would. There was pain, both physical and emotional, deep within him and raw upon the surface, but he was not evil. Nor was he entirely good either. The old man realized that the rider skirted the edge, and it would take but a feather’s touch to send him spiraling down into the darkness of the abyss.

The cat’s hissing broker him from his reverie, signaling that the horse had come to a stop just outside the castle gate.

“Hello the Keep!” a deep voice bellowed.

The old man erased the new pattern he’d drawn as he moved forward to greet the rider, stepping out to where he could be plainly seen. The cat fell into step beside him and for a long moment, he and the rider simply stared at one another. As he’d sensed, the horse was war trained and stood tall and proud in the failing light of dusk. Black was his color and his spirit shone, fidgeting under the control of his master, nostrils flaring and tail whipping as he caught sight and scent of the old man and his cat approaching. The rider was garbed in black, as the old man had sensed, an oiled cloak with a hood drawn close around his face hiding his features. Yet the old man thought he saw a frown.

“You are welcome to my home,” the old man said. “Come forward and let me look upon you. There is a fire and food to warm you.”

The rider hesitated only a moment before urging the horse in under the portcullis, lowering his head slightly as he passed beneath its rusted iron spikes. The old man watched as the rider’s head moved side to side, taking in the Keep and the walls surrounding it. He could still make out the hint of a frown within the shadows of the hood.

“I come seeking someone,” the rider began.

“And you have found someone. I welcome you, Agden son of Jonas, to the Wizard’s Keep. My name is Darius, and this is my home. You are expected.”

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