By Jaqueline T. Johnson

Test of Time (Volume 1)

Fantasy/Science Fiction

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?”

Erich grinned.

“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.”

Nash groaned.

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.”