The Shadow Knights did not exist. That is, they existed to be invisible to the free people of Marrokville, rumored to be, and feared as some of the most deadly swordsmen in Astelbania. None ever saw a Shadow Knight. All one ever saw was the path of their passing; martial justice in service to the King. Some dared to say they were above the very laws the Kingdom enforces upon its people... Men and women with the power to deliver justice either by deliverance, or by the swing of a mighty sword-arm.The truth? The truth was that among the sworn knights of Marrokville, no honor was greater than to be invited among the most prestigious and secret sects of knighthood. The Shadow Knights practiced justice by seeking out evil and all unlawful types that sought to undo the will of the king in any form necessary.
The first Shadow Knights lived in the dark time at the end of the First Age... teaching ancient traditions and philosophies that were passed on from one master swordsman to his circle of knights men and women over many generations. Only lately, the noble men and women of the Knighthood were being used to do the bidding of corrupted, black-hearted king, who, Kanan Al'Barran was convinced was nothing more than a puppet to a Dark Wizard to the North. For the passing 6 years, Kanan Al'Barran had been witness to back-alley justice in the name of preserving the King's foothold over Nobles and Lords men on the outskirts of Marrokville.
And now, sitting alone in the bowels of a Devensheerian ship; a prisoner no less, Kanan Al'Barran reflected on events that had led to his incarceration. Where had he gone wrong? What had he missed? How could he now have seen this coming?!Not that he was surprised. Those that opposed the King, were, more than not, visited by three figures in dark armor and heron marked blades. Either gold was exchanged for silence, or a crime would be conveniently stricken into a decree, and the traitor would be summarily executed for his crime. Too often, Kanan Al'Barran had turned a blind-eye to this injustice, and though he knew there were some men he could trust within the Sect, the mere mention of descent among the men would mean a form of back-alley justice on him and any that followed him.
Over these 6 years, he thought his only recourse was to observe and document in silence; to investigate this Dark Wizard. For long months he had volunteered to travel north on duties for the king up to the North. He had gained favor from his corrupted King Rael Marrok - a distant grand-son of the founding father, King Joral Marrok. And finally after suspecting the king's indiscretions for so long, King Rael Marrok entrusted Kanan with a mission to bring 4 of his best men to Dirkshire to meet with a Mage. The meeting was more of a delivery of a chest full of Fasdeus-knows-what! The King's mage had sealed the chest with a dweormer that would put even the strongest willed warrior into a deep slumber for a day or two. But upon that meeting, Kanan's blood turned to ice, as he came face to face with a mage of the Black Order; black robes and cowl that hid the face of their wearers. Only the pale skin of a pointed chin was visible.
The mage's voice was a chilling whisper,
"I trust that the chest has not been tampered with," the mage had said.
"It has not," Kanan had assured, "You will find the dweormer intact!"
The mage had bowed and whispered a word of magic, and swirling darkened magics swirled about the wooden chest - and the dweormer was defeated. Kanan Al'Barran managed to catch a glimpse of the contents before the Mage could see his wandering eye, and what Kanan saw brought a cotton-white pallor to his face.
"I trust it is as you expected, Master," Kanan had bowed.
"It is!" the whispery empty voice had said, "I've no more use for you accept for you to tell your King that he has gained more favour by my master!"
"And may I have the honor of knowing your Master's name. I am sometimes not in a position to know who it is I serve!" Kanan could not recall if he'd remained as stoic as he'd hope. A bard-actor he was not.
"Tell him," the Mage had answered turning away, "Sakkarr Sorendragon will visit him soon!"
Ashened, Kanan turned away and walked silently, with his 4 men in tow. His most trusted Second, Lord Alder Lorenquick, placed a hand upon Kanan's shoulder."What did your eyes see, Brother?!" Lord Lorenquick asked.
"Blood, my friend!" Kanan's lips were white as he spoke, his tongue like sandpaper, "I saw vials of Elvish blood!"This was the first time Kanan had suspected the King of dealing with a the Dark Wizard to the North. His knights begged him not to persue the matter!"I could only get you killed, Kanan!" Lorenquick had warned."Then I will be killed," Al'Barran was defiant, "I can no longer serve a dark king!" He would fine more proof in the months ahead as he took 5 of his most trusted men North of Devensheer. He told them of his suspicions ... and wanted them to believe.The five had traveled in silence. Knowing a truth like this labeled them traitors; truth be damned. Lord Alder Lorenquick was Kanan's most trusted friend; his Second in command in his band of 12 Knights that were loyal to him. Alder was a tall man, with a sculpted form beneath the leather armor of a Shadow Knight. No helm could hide the flaming red hair beneath, and Alder was marked by freckles as fiery as his locks. His blue eyes were sharp, all-seeing and wise. He was a tactician; more so than Kanan could ever claim himself.
Behind Alder Lorenquick, rode a brooding Cassius Correl, a Marrokian Knight to the bone - down to the dark black curled locks, dark eyes and tanned skin. Cassius had a gift that should have landed him a role in the plays of Astelbania's finest Touring Bards. If there was a role to be played, Cassius could fit it for the needs of the mission. A drunken jealous husband seeking justice for the infidelities of his wife, a rich pompous bard who'd been robbed, fearful for his life and begging for his life ... a Devensman farmer whose crops had failed long ago, and turned to a life of crime and thievery to make the magistrate's taxes ... whatever the role, Cassius Correl was the bait. He was also known as the one knight in the group that no woman could say 'no' to in matter of the bedroom. This gift alone had its merits in their line of work. Usually jovial and quick with a story, Cassius Correl's brooding worried Kanan the most...
Of the four horsemen with him, Kanan considered Alder and Cassius his own personal inner-circle. They'd seen blood, battled and strife together. The battle of Tavenlore brought them together, and since that time, knighthood had forged a brotherhood between them.
The other men, a young initiate named Corbin Crowley and the tracker - a small waif of a man they called, Kit Kurl took up the rear.
Well into the seventh hour of their travels back south, Corbin Crowley broke the silence, "Are we simply going to pretend like we did not see what we saw!"The breath caught into Kanan's chest - and he held it there, his mind racing.
"We did our duty, Sir Crowley!" Alder Lorenquick spoke with authority - and edge in his voice belied his own fear of speaking ill of the King.
Kanan did what he could to contain his own self and turned cooly to the young knight. "We can say nothing, for we are in service to our King" he inclined his head, "Now i beseech you both," his eyes fell upon Lord Crowly and Kit Kurl, who's face was pinched in a bulldog of a face, "track ahead. We enter the land of savage and undead .. we shall ride another hour and we will set camp...""AS you wish, Milord, " Corbin Crowley bowed in his saddle, looked to the tracker and motioned him forward, doing his duty without question. Kanan's eyes fell upon his friend's face, which was as pale as a Tajye'an fair-maiden on an winter's morning. When they were safely to themselves, Cassius addressed Kanan with uncertainty,"The boy has a point!" Alder spoke first.
"Aye, that he does!" Kanan nodded, but continued as matter-of-factly as he could muster, "The king..." he hesitated, for to say it bore a label.. "The king has been corrupted by a dark wizard -- the rumours are true.. " Kanan let out a long breath - and a chill went down his spine, "There, I have said it aloud!"
"You have suspected as much for 5 years - you should have trusted your instincts, brother!" Cassius said.
"Six years, my friend, and i never doubted them!" Kanan nodded .. " the rumour of the North hunting down Elvish noblemen and sailor is true. I could never understood why, accept to be vengeful of their arrogance - but it seems there is a price on their blood .. for what, i cannot fathom,"
"I am almost afraid to wonder" Alder's lips were down in a frown.
Kanan nodded. "Aye!"
"What good is elvish blood to a wizard?" Cassius asked the obvious.
"There you have me... " Kanan chewed his bottom lip.. "do not mistake me for one who can understand the ways of a User of Magics"The chill of night crepted upon the fellowship of three as the gallops of approching horsemen could be heard. Alder fell back, and took his mount into the trees and the other two rode forth in silence. Kanan's eyes tried to peel back the dimming dusk-light, and could see only two shadows on steeds coming this way.Kanan called a halt, with his fist firmly over the hilt of his Heron-Marked Shadow Knigh sword - in itself an artifact of great power (that is a story for later in our small tale).
"Halt there .. announce yourself.."
"It is we, Commander - Corbin and Kit .." Kanan released his sword, and rested back into his saddle - and Alder came from the cover of the surrounding Northern Forest.. full of pine, elm and Maple.
"What word, then," Cassius called curiously.
"WE come upon a camp, brothers," Kit Kurl announced factly - there was ever little emotion in the tracker's voice. He was always matter-of-fact. He did not speak often; and usually only when spoken to - and even then, he answered with nods of a head, or a blank look and a blink.. he was an oddity to be sure.
Kanan was curious.
Cassius' eyebrows rose. Alder met that expression with clicking his tongue, "Well, this far East.. can this possibly be a coincidence?"
"I do not think so!" Corbin spoke up, "The black robed bastard has stuck his minion upon us - and we'd be outnumbered 3 to 1 !!!"
"Good odds," smiled Alder, winking.
Kanan became pensive, scratching his long brown hair, then his beard. His eyes poked into the eyes of his men - seeking wisdom within them. Then he looked heavenward at the starry night sky beginning to show its flickering heavens.
"You have another thought?" Alder looked at Cassius and then to Kanan - they shared knowing glances.
"Aye.. perhaps.. may i speak with you in private, Alder.."
"We cannot stay her long, Commander .. patrols will surely come this way..we should attack!" Corbin said.
Cassius sighed, "Foolish!"
"Foolish, eh? Tell me that when you find yourself face to face with an orcan blade.."
"I've seen that!" Cassius nodded, and smiled knowingly.
"Enough!" Kanan commanded, "I shall deliberate with my Second!" he set his jaw. When that was done, none argued, "break out rations and wine. The night promises to have a chill with narry a cloud to the sky... "
Looking at Alder, he shot his head aside and walked away from the others, looking at his feet as he strode into the trees.
Corbin was young and brash. "We can't just stay here!!!" he said to Cassius.
"Oh yes we can!" Cassius pulled a dried chunk of jerky and began to work at chewing it, with a swig of wine, "I suggest you get comfortable. Sometimes it is hours before those two come up with something.."
"Hours??!" Corbin was exasperated.
Cassius winked at Kit who only shooked his old head, and slumped next to a tree, chewing a hunk of bread.
"You are about to give Corbin a painful stillness of heart!" Alder Lorenquick said, breaking a long silence. He'd known Kanan for too many years. He knew that when Kanan began to think, he needed time to put the pieces to a puzzle in place in his own mind. Alder had little illusion that he was here to offer councel to his old friend. Nay, Alder was here for one reason, and one reason alone; to listen.. But Grace burn him, he was not going to sit here listening to the trees sway in the night's breeze while Kanan's wheels spun at a Gnome's pace (and for those who are laymen - Gnomes are so short that to keep in step with a human man, his feet must pitter-patter at such a pace, that it would tire the most stought of runner just by hearing them hit the ground over and over and over again).
"He will live!" Kanan said, still pensive - almost absentmindedly.
"Oh i'm sure of it.. " Alder crossed his arms, and puffed out his cheeks, "What are we doing here, Kanan!?"
"What?" Kanan looked up from his thoughts .. and bit down upon his own jaw, and sighed, "I do not know.. I've always known that Rael Marrok was as oily as a tar-pit.. but i never thought i would be able to proove it.."
"It is a pickle!" Alder offered nothing. It was the way of things.. He always allowed Kanan to formulate his own conclusion.. it always happened..
"If the King IS in leagues with the Dark Wizard of the North.. this Sakkarr Sorendragon, then we should have nothing to fear of these Orcs!" Kanan looked up at his friend - this time looking for an answer.
"You could think it that way.."
"But do you?!"
"i do not know, Kanan.. there is clearly something amiss - and I've never doubted you.. my own uncle, Brandyn in Devensheer has said that you were as probably correct as any man could be... And i love you both - and trust both with my life... "
"You are not helping.."
Kanan was short.
"When do I ever?!" smiled the Second.
This, at least, brought a chuckle to Kanan's heart.
"I must know! If the King is, indeed, in leagues with this Sakkarr, than we must de-throne him!"
"Dethrone a King!?? HA!" Alder Lorenquick now thought Kanan was going mad. It had never been done, in all written history of Marrokville. Even in their circle of 12 Knights, Kanan trusted only two - he and Cassius .. tho' in Alder estimation, Kit Kurl was as trust-worthy as Cassius..
This Corbin?? He was a good man.. but ambitious - and far too eager to please... as for the others - they did their bidding from the upper-achelon of Marrokan policians ... "Not through the knights... it cannot be done!" offered Alder pessimistically...
"Surely we are not the only ones that have come upon something like this.."
"Why do you think our Great Patriarch sent us on this little 'errand', Kanan. " Alder slapped his own fist, "He wants you to see it.. He's flaunting it... because if the Great Kanan Al'Barran cannot proove his guilt .. none can.. No, Kanan.." Alder shook his head, "With the Wizard aid, he is too cunning.."
"Then Marrokville is a fallen waste to me, and this..." he unstrapped his Heron-Marked Sword, "A sword that we swear an oath upon, is meaningless," he tossed the weapon upon the grown -and it clattered in the underbrush, and this act caused Alder to wince... Nothing was more holy to a Shadow Knight of Marrokville than his Magic-wrought Heron-marked sword. The sword knows its weilders inner-most thoughts. It predicts his moves in battles, it senses fear and calms one's heart. It warns of danger on the horizon. And it can only be handled by its own master or those he trusts with his soul.
Alder looked hard at the blue-scabbard sheathed blade. There upon the scabbard, was the heron-mark of a roaring-lion and golden eagle with wingspan spread open, both in a silent battle roar - the mark of a secret sect of the Shadow Knight; courage of a lion, karmic justice of the great eagle. Hesitating only inwardly, he reached for the sword, and picked it up. When he did not die, he sighed.
"You do not mean that, brother!" Alder said, holding out the sword to Kanan.
"Why don't I? " Kanan did not take it back just yet, "We swore service to our King.. and if this King is in league with a black robe who is harvesting elves' blood, and waging war on the North.. how can our the honor we promise mean anything.."
"Take it!" Alder took an abrupt step forward!
Kanan was taken aback.
"Take it, I say!" Alder thrusted the sword back into Kanan's hands, "Take it.. Honor is not who you serve, Brother.. it is in your heart! Blast, you are a fool sometimes!"
Kanan's face was perplexed. But he was silent. Alder stared in to his friend's face - but saw little but shock.. tho' Alder himself did not believe he'd said anything so shocking as to leave Kanan speechless...
"Why..." Kanan stammered.. "Usually you... " Kanan's head swayed left to right, trying to find the delicate words.. "you are not so unusually ... forthright?!" kanan nodded .. "Forthright is the word, I believe... Insubbordinate can work.. but .. forthright.."
"Grace burn me, Kanan Al'Barran - I should box your ear sometimes.."
"You should... yes.."
"Follow your heart, then, Kanan.. and i am always yours faithfully. "
Kanan nodded, "That I do know. "
Something clicked behind Kanan's eyes.. Alder had seen it so many times...
"We will approach the camp - openly.. Should they let us pass without any incident, than I will my fears will be realized without any doubt... " Kanan shrugged, "However, should they attack....."
Alder smiled mischieviously, "Then we shall have a glorious battle!"
Kanan took his sword back - and although his face was impassive, Alder saw a glimmer of thankyou in there... somewhere..
Kanan gave the order, "Round up the men... we will march on to the camp.."