Nash took a long, slow breath. The forest was so dark. The pain he once felt had begun to subside. The sound of Erich’s voice whispered as if being spoken through a fog. Am I dying? Is this what it feels like to die?
Why can’t I find my way? The thundering sound of boots pounding into the dirt
awakened the forest floor. The darkness spurred him forward. Reuben raced toward the place he last saw them fighting. As he moved past the trees and through the thicket, the cries of the forest came to life, filling his heart with confusion. The deeper he ran, the more things changed. Nothing was as before. Where were the sounds of life? A forest is always filled with life. All he heard was the erratic, undisciplined sound of his breathing as it transformed to match the pounding of his footsteps. He was convinced the echo he heard was the sound of fear. Yes…he was afraid. Yes…he was desperate. He had to reach the clearing before the trees swallow the last glimpse of light.
Reuben silently screamed, Why can’t I find my way?
The continuous breaking of twigs and the crushing of leaves ripped thorns across
his bare hands. A tree stretched its arm, slapping Reuben across the face. Tears blinded his vision, causing him to fall. At the moment, he felt no pain. He wanted to stop, but he couldn’t stop crying. The hot tears were unfamiliar. He was the son of Nashton, the commander of Meir; he wasn’t a crier…he was born in his father’s image…he was a fighter. Fighters don’t cry.
Finally seeing the clearing, Reuben tore through the brush. To his horror the area
was empty. The world around him began to spin. A cruel illusion had swallowed him into a living nightmare. Reuben stared wild-eyed around the area. Was his trajectory wrong? Had he run in the wrong direction? Reuben turned on his heels. He looked through the trees. He ran toward a stump sitting in the midst of the clearing. His mind assured him he was in the right place, but how could he be? Where was his father? Where were the arrows he saw soaring from the trees? Why wasn’t the sky filled with scavengers seeking the dead? Where was the king?
As the memory of that moment replayed in his mind, his breathing became
sporadic. Reuben screamed. He screamed as his thoughts relived the image of a sword puncturing through his father’s back. Where was the blood? Reuben fell to his knees, clawing the ground, searching for a sign the ground had been stained with blood. He kept digging until his fingers bled.
Reuben struggled to fight his rising urge to cry as the ground before him became
moist with his tears. Alone in the forest, surrounded by the chaos of nature, a young man cried for his father. Exhausted, mentally and physically, Reuben didn’t remember falling asleep. The chill of the night air awakened him to the reality that he was alone, he was in the forest, and he was unarmed. The howling from a wolf echoed beyond the trees. The scratching sound of night invaders stirred the forest floor. Everything sounded different in the dark. The darkness amplified the hooting, the rustling, and the howling of creatures that prowled the blackness.
Reuben leaped to his feet, running in the direction he last saw his horse. He ran for
miles, falling, dragging his body through a forest that was inviting in the day but the night had turned it into a frightening playground. Beyond the echo of his beating heart, Reuben heard a voice. The breath of the wind transformed, whispering his name. He began to see shadows leaping from tree to tree. When Reuben fell, he saw the stump of legs galloping in the darkness.
Reuben silently screamed, Why can’t I find my father?
A howling cry echoed through the Forbidden Forest. Blood and sweat poured from Nash as he began his long walk into darkness. At night, the Forbidden Forest was a playground for things that come alive in the dark. His only guide was the fluorescent glow of insects playing hide-and-seek through the trees. Faint glimpses of light momentarily vanquished the darkness. Two steps forward and a sharp turn to the right just in time to elude a statuesque tree ruling the forest floor. A flicker of light steered him toward the right and then to the left until finally…a pathway. Pausing to grind his boots in the dirt, Nash inhaled deeply. The aroma of pine was mingled with oak, honeysuckle, primrose, and the scent of civilization. The smell of men consumed the air, temporarily confusing his senses.
Nash closed his eyes. In the crevices of his mind, he saw blood and heard the echo of Erich howling. The horrifying look in Erich’s eyes and the bitter smell of blood forced him to face an old enemy. Nash opened his eyes staring down a dark pathway. The further he traveled out of the darkness, the brighter faint torches glowed in the night, illuminating a path to the arch of Peerless. Nash walked the path, ignoring the hidden Stringers spying from within the trees. He continued his trek toward his destination, where he knew he would find Artemis, the most powerful man in three kingdoms.
Artemis yawned. He stared into the flame of a lone candle sitting in the center of the table. The flickering flame danced ominous shadows around the room. When the door opened, a night breeze swallowed the flame, engulfing the room in obscurity. When he relit the candle, he was no longer alone. Artemis yawned again. “Darkness suits the commander of Meir,” he said, staring at Nash. “Why do you walk alone in my domain?”
“Is anyone truly alone in the Forbidden Forest?”
“Don’t look surprised to see me…I’m sure the wind spoke my name,” said Nash.
“You and I are not friends,” answered Artemis. “What possessed you to come to me at this hour?”
Nash looked through the candlelight. He thought he saw a sneer on his face. Nash slid a slip of paper across the table.
Artemis glanced at the paper. “What is this?” he asked.
“A fair trade,” said Nash.
“What could you have that I want?”
“Your contract,” spouted Nash.
Intrigued, Artemis leaned forward. “Why is the commander of Meir desperate?” mocked Artemis. “What do I have that you want?”
“How much do you trust Erich?”
“I don’t trust Erich,” confessed Artemis. “When he was Victor…I trusted him with my life.”
“Do you believe Victor have visions?”
“What did he see!” shouted Artemis.
The urgency in his voice stunned him. Nash saw by the expression on Artemis’ face that he believed. He purposely waited, wanting to stir Artemis’ curiosity. When Artemis shouted again, Nash finally replied, “He saw Kane kill Daniel.”
Artemis leaned back. He rubbed the curls of his beard. He was grateful for the darkness, it hid the trembling of his hands. “Why have you come alone…why didn’t Erich come?”
“Because I’m going to do what Victor couldn’t,” confess Nash.
Artemis slightly smiled. “What do you want me to do?”
“Bring Kane to me and the contract is yours.” Nash pushed the contract across the table.
Artemis pushed the contract back toward him. “Keep it. This is a freebie,” muttered Artemis.
Nash walked back into the darkness. After riding for miles away from Peerless and peering eyes, he rendezvoused with Erich at their arranged meeting place. Erich was leaning against a tree. Nash stood in front of him. The haggard look on his face hinted Erich hadn’t slept in days. The men stared without speaking.
“Did Artemis believe you?” asked Erich softly.
Nash nodded. “What are you going to do with Kane?”
“I will not let Kane kill Daniel,” Erich snarled. “I will not let my father kill my son.”
Take a breath. Take a breath. Breathe….breathe. Nash silently yelled…..Breathe, as the crushing weight of sand was compressing against his chest surrounding him into a sea of darkness. An instant was all it took. In an instant, the earth sneezed releasing a blinding monsoon of dust. Across the horizon, he saw the storm build as it rolled in swallowing the sun. Shard grains of sand collaborated with the raging wind billowing dark clouds rising from below. Fear screamed for him to run. Instinct shouted for him to release his horse in order to survive he must hide…he must surrender. Nash followed the screams of his instinct searching for shelter…a hiding place.
The storm beat against his flesh with a force that brought him to his knees. A battle of man against nature buried him beneath a blanket of darkness. Breathe….breathe. Nash held his breath inhaling the cloth covering his face. A moment of confusion forced him to ask…Did I turn? Am I face up or face down? Breathe…this is no time to panic….breathe. What do I do? What do I do? The thought he was being buried alive wasn’t his ideal of a good death. Nash began to rock back and forth but his movement poured more sand down on him. With all his strength he pushed upward from his back. Nash howled as he erupted from his sandy coffin.
Nash fell back on the sand sprawling his arms in surrender. The sun was raging, baking the desert floor. Exhausted from his resurrection, he closed his eyes breathing the still desert air. He glanced upward at the noonday sun before collapsing. Hours later, he was awakened by the stench of warm breath from his horse. Nash coughed. “Forever faithful,” he said. Nash looked around. He looked to the left then to his right. Nothing….no wind, no sounds. The world was taking a breath after unleashing a deadly sandstorm that left behind mounds of rolling hills and stinging parasites. He gazed over the horizon wondering….Why am I here? A journey to nowhere brought him to a fork in the road.
“I can’t let you go back to Noyi.” The memory of the last conversation he had with Erich resurfaced. He remembered Erich’s threat. Without seeing he knew Erich had a hand on his sword. After everything they endured together their friendship had come to a defining moment….a promise not to kill each other’s king, but they hadn’t promised not to kill each other. Were their last words a promise or was it a threat? Nash wanted to think but he couldn’t. His decision to cross the desert brought him to a place of turmoil. He tucked the corners of his cloak fighting to shield his face from a rising wind. The taste of sand filled his throat as he glanced through the beginning of another sandstorm.
Long days and lonely nights were invisible companions. Nash pulled on his horse’s reins trying to soothe him as sharp edges of sand drummed against his skin. In the wind, he heard the soft sound of crying whispers. Too many days alone made the sound of hallucinating voices sweet. Hours later, the storm cleared revealing the crossroad facing Noyi.
The only thing that stood between him and the road to Noyi was a grassy paradise. A shelter of tall trees, grassy carpet and the sparkle of a clear pool was a tempting site…a bit of heaven before walking into hell. Nash took a slow breath before diving head first into the rippling waves. The cool water erased the dust and soothed his sun-dried skin. The oasis was a place to relax…a place to think. Nash grabbed his satchel searching for an unopened letter. An interesting letter with a tempting offer was meant as a distraction. Nash laid-back closing his eyes. His decision was made…he will return to Noyi, a place where no one will follow. He will wait for sunset. Nothing came alive in Noyi until the sun sets.
In Noyi, its ruler eagerly waited for the arrival of his prodigal son. “At the crossroad,” repeated Lugar. He waited years to hear those words. His son was coming home. Anticipation caused his heart to flutter out of control. Nothing else mattered. Nothing will stand in their way. A reunion was imminent. Nothing will stop them. Nash was at the crossroad facing home.
A hoarse echo diverted his attention. The wailing was a crude reminder of the years he spent eluding the madness that lived within these walls. The more steps Erich took, the more compelled he felt to gaze into an open cell. The cell held a lone man cowering in a corner. His tormented body hid the signs of torture, but the look of madness in his eyes spoke of the emptiness of his mind. The sight of the man reminded Erich that, two years ago, he was a whisper away from enduring the same fate.
In the span of two years, he had endured a lifetime. Two years ago, he was no one, but now his pockets were filled with gold; he had won the trust of the king and the hand of his daughter. He ate at the king’s table and slept under his roof but was forever mindful of the friend he left behind. Haunting images beckoned him to search the belly of the dungeon. His future lay in the hands of a man he was determined to free from the underworld. Together again, they would be united and together, they would be strong. Erich walked the final length of the corridor closing his fist around a set of bronze keys.
The sound of a mouse scratching across the floor faded with the sound of a key slipping into the lock. Nash closed his eyes and waited to face the guardian who dared to challenge him. He was weary of their attempts of grandeur, but their regular confrontations helped to keep his body strong and his senses alert. Nash remained still while he waited for the sound of footsteps. The cell was silent. When he opened his eyes, he rose slowly to stare into the eyes of a stranger he once called a friend. Nash leaned against the wall. Several moments passed before either man spoke.
“I never thought I would see the face of my betrayer again,” replied Nash.
“I never betrayed you,” answered Erich, “you were careless.”
Nash heard his reply but he was momentarily silenced by Erich’s appearance. Somewhere in the crevices of his mind, Nash knew he had spent two—or was it three?—years living in darkness, and one glance at Erich was proof that beyond these walls life had continued. Seasons changed, people changed, and it appears that his visitor had also undergone a transformation. The man who stood before him was not the man he remembered. He may have altered his appearance, but the thing Nash admired about Erich was something he couldn’t change: the look in his eyes; it was the look of a man never satisfied. Behind those eyes was the mind of an ingenious criminal. Nash continued to examine the stranger. Erich had replaced his outer roughness with the garment of an imperial soldier. The criminal had transformed into a saint. Nash was impressed. He almost believed his transformation until he looked deeper into his glare. The intensity in his eyes was a look Nash remembered as an intimate enemy and familiar friend. A slow smile crossed his face.
“Tell me, Commander, how is your alter ego?”
“How is Victor?” asked Nash.
Erich grinned again.
Nash leaned forward, growing more intrigued by his counterpart, his friend, his enemy. “I’m impressed. It’s not every day that a man goes from being a wanted criminal to the king’s commander. Does the king have any idea how dangerous you are?” “He has no reason not to trust me,” Erich stepped closer. “It was you who orchestrated the kidnapping. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Nash shook his head. “Ah yes, you arrived just in time to save the king’s daughter. For our crime, I was given a private hell, while you were rewarded her bed.”
A snide smile slowly turned the corner of Erich’s mouth.
Nash snarled, no longer amused by his visit. “What do you want? Did you come here to gloat, or are you afraid I’ll reveal your secret?”
“I don’t think you’ll betray me. Have you forgotten that I am the man who saved you from the gallows?”
“And why did you save me…to die a slow death in this pit,” shouted Nash.
Erich heard his anger, but he remained calm. “Aren’t you a little curious why I am here?” Nash hated the calm smugness in his voice. “Why are you here?” he barked.
“I came to inform you that the king has given me a wedding present.” Erich paused to meet Nash’s curious gaze. “He has given me the power to pardon.”
A stunned Nash slowly whispered, “A power like that can be deadly in the hands of a dangerous man.”
“His game, his move, his loss,” snapped Erich.
“How do you know the king isn’t testing you?” Nash continued. “He would be a fool not to suspect that you would free me.”
“If he is testing me, he won’t like what he finds,” a devious smile appeared on Erich’s face, “Shall we go?”
Their footsteps echoed down the empty corridor. Nash followed his friend to freedom. Once outside Nash filled his lungs with a breath of fresh air. Two years of darkness had nearly cost him his mind. Freedom smelled sweet.
“Now that you are free, what are you going to do?” asked Erich.
“The hills look pretty,” answered Nash.
“Suppose I make you a better offer.”
“I should have known freedom had a price.” Nash kept walking. “What do you want me to do, kill the king?”
Erich contemplated the idea. “No, but you’re right, the king is watching, and I need an extra pair of eyes.”
Nash glanced at Erich who kept walking. “I’m listening.”
Erich rubbed the back of his neck. “When we decided to seize Meir, I knew we were playing a dangerous game, but it cost you two years of freedom, and I’m tired of playing nursemaid to a king.”
“We can ride away from here,” suggested Nash.
“We could but there is a slight problem…” Erich paused to glance at Nash. “I think I love her.”
Erich quickly defended his impulsive confession. “If I hadn’t saved her, you wouldn’t be free, she wouldn’t be my wife…and we would have swung from the gallows.”
Nash groaned again. “Now what?”
“We reform,” he said smiling.
“Are you serious?” asked Nash. “You want to play the hero.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What are you saying?”
“That there is more than one way to steal a throne.”
Nash shook his head. It sounded as if they were about to plant their feet. He swore to follow Erich anywhere, but he wondered whether they would regret Erich’s decision not to kill the king. “If you stay, I’ll stay, but I need dirt under my feet and the smell of a horse beneath me. I will not live behind walls.”
Erich understood. “Then it is agreed, we will stay. I’ll play commander, while you…”
“Torment the king,” spouted Nash.
“If we are going to do this, you cannot make the king suspicious.” Erich looked at Nash. “Agreed?”
Nash shrugged. “Where do we start?”
“With the king’s pride: his army.” Erich, wary of spying eyes, stepped into the shadows as he spoke. “The power of Meir lies in its army, but the men are lazy. They have become fat with their wealth. Meir will never become strong as long as the men allow peace to make them lazy. We will train them to become an army that is respected and feared. We will restore Meir to its rightful place of power. We will make them remember the days when Meir ruled with an iron hand.”
“Are you crazy, or have you forgotten who you are?” Nash snapped. “I’m a Noyitian and you are—”
“I know who I am,” bellowed Erich, as if the word could not be spoken. “I was born for this, and I will fulfill my destiny.” Erich paused, a sly grin formed on his face. “The king chose me, now I will choose the direction Meir will go. You and I will finish the journey we started together.”
Nash stopped to stare at his friend. “Are you listening to yourself? Have you forgotten that Victor and Nash are wanted enemies of the crown? Two years ago King Onio wanted my head.”
“Two years is a long time. Men change. Besides, as far as the king or anyone knows, Victor is a myth. He doesn’t exist. Our plan was perfect until you tried to kidnap the princess. One mistake cost us a lifetime.”
“I got greedy. I made a mistake, but how was I to know that my trusted comrade was a spy? Who would have guessed you were deceiving both sides?” Nash shook his head, “Victor wears a clever disguise.”
Erich looked into Nash’s gaze, denying the excitement he saw in his smile. “Victor is dead, and that is where he will remain.”
Nash hunched his shoulders before walking away.
“What do you say to my offer?”
“Are you serious?”
“We can do this. You watch my back, and I’ll watch yours.”
“Are you admitting you don’t trust the king?”
“I trust only the man who stands before me,” said Erich.
Nash stalled, contemplating Erich’s offer. Meir was a kingdom with promise, and reuniting with Erich could be interesting, but he wondered whether he should press his luck. Could they afford to risk undertaking an elaborate masquerade? Freedom lost wasn’t something he wanted to experience again. “Erich, Victor may be dead, but you’re a royal soldier and the king’s son-in-law. Can you risk revealing our past? I cannot hide my past. People will question your loyalty.”
“I don’t care what anyone thinks,” Erich hardened his tone. “You and I know who we are. There is no greater friendship than ours.”
“You’re asking for trouble,” Nash whispered, wearing a sly grin. “This could be interesting.”