Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Eye of Time (An All Original Serial Novel)

Frank Menser and Nickolas Cook

Part I—
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Chapter 5—

It seemed to Drake, now known to these brave and bloody people as Draco, a man of great power and influence in this strange unknown world, that this was like a dream in which he had unwillingly been thrust. He kept silent for his part during the ride into the castle proper. First, their part had wound up a narrow rocky course, which the horses seemed familiar enough with to do most of the work for themselves, without much guidance from their riders. Lucky enough, Drake/Draco thought, since he had never, as far as he was concerned traversed this steep and unlikely course himself. But he felt even as he allowed the stallion beneath him to take the lead that that was not entirely the truth either. It was as if two men resided within: one who was a stranger to all, and another who knew every step, every rock of this pathway leading up to a strangely familiar stone construct. Drake shook his head, as if bothered by gnats in his very mind, trying to assert some sort of true authority over these alien feelings and thoughts within himself.
His gesture did not go completely unnoticed. Warson leaned forward in his saddle next to him and gently touched his liege’s arm. “Sire, are ye well? Ye seem pale and uncertain. Shall we stop for a short rest?”
Drake forced himself to smile at his familiar and yet unfamiliar cohort and man-in-arms. “So close to the castle? No, I will be fine. I just need to find a place to sit and think for a while.”
“Strange is your speech, sire,” Warson said, his broad face filled with concern and confusion. “You sound not like yourself. It worries me to the bone, sire.”
Drake waved him away. “I’m okay. Really. I—” he tried to think of a way to construct his speech so this man might be put at ease. He stumbled over this next words, attempting to match the other’s odd pattern and word choice. “Mayhaps I received a harsher blow from yon villain than I first thought. My head feels thick and floating. If that makes sense to…ye?”
Warson still seemed concerned, but Drake’s word choice also seemed to have been close enough to what the other man wanted to hear to set his mind at more ease than before. He sat back in his saddle and nodded. “Mayhaps, sire, it is as you say. In yon castle we shall have Owl Thomas make sure of your health. And I’m sure the lady will also see to your health, eh?”
Utterly confused, Drake held that forced smile, knowing neither who this lady might be or this Owl Thomas, and nodded.
Just keep quiet as possible, he warned himself. The less you say the better. No one needs to know you are not whom they think you are. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. So what if you feel like man whose been tossed onto an island without a clue? These warriors don’t seem the type to bear much patience with crazy talk. And telling them you’re a man from another time and place will certainly sound insane to them. Definitely not something they want to hear after they saved your arse from a man who, like them, seemed oddly familiar and strange at the same time. They might decide they made a mistake in saving your hide an cut you own with one of their strange steel swords.
And that thought only brought forth another troubling one: how in the heck had he known how to use his own sword against the man they’d called Lord Balto? It hadn’t been anything as ridiculous as beginner’s luck. No, the length of deadly steel had felt as natural to his callused grip as his own missing pistols had felt in his own missing time and place. How did he explain that?
You don’t try, he told himself. You keep your mouth shut and eyes open. You try to figure out the rules of this new place and survive until…until what?
That thought made him even more fearful.
But he reigned in the growing dread and terror.
Until you can figure out what the hell is going on and how you can get back to your own time and place.
He gave no voice to the logical conclusion of that line of thought, which was if he could ever get back. At the moment, it didn’t seem like a very healthy line of thinking to follow.
The roadway had been climbing for what seemed like miles, and then finally they hit a long straight away of the same rocky terrain, but it had been more properly maintained, and so the horses made better time now. And having reached this part of their journey his traveling companions became ebullient and gregarious amongst themselves. There was good natured laughter now; and joking within the ranks. Drake kept his simple and watchful silence, nodding if engaged in conversation, but carefully adding nothing to the several lines of conversations around him. He listened with care, trying to glean information from even the most casual of remarks. It didn’t take him long to come away with two pieces of what he considered important information: that this, so far, unnamed lady was his betrothed and this Owl Thomas was some sort of court appointed man of magic. Both of these pieces of information felt very important and almost surreal in their weight of importance to his existence, here, in this strange place and time. It felt to him that these two unknown persons were the key to his understanding of this impossible situation in which he found himself. He felt the need to speak to them both at length to fully grasp his impossible situation.
He continued to keep his ears open as the small band of riders made their way to the gate of the castle. As they approached, no one challenged them, as if their presence had been ascertained long before their actual approach. They were allowed entrance inside the castle without a word of recognition from beyond the stalwart tall walls of grey stone. A gate was lowered slowly across the yards and yards of open space that separated the castle proper from the stony road leading up to it. No visible guards could be seen as his fellow travelers led the way across the thick wooden bridge that spanned the deep chasm which ran the length of the castle’s yard. The weight of their passage didn’t seem to concern the thick wood barrier cum bridge. There wasn’t even a creak to ascertain their passage, and Drake could only guess at the type of wood used to construct such a bridge/gate.
Once they were inside the gate proper, the bridge was raised into position once again, by unseen hands. Drake could hear muffled commands being called from somewhere inside the long, high walls that surrounded the castle, and the invisible steps of many booted feet marching in time.
Inside the walls, Drake found a small village of huts. As they rode forth, frightened people peered from the shadows of the huts. Drake could feel their terror of the war which raged without. His heart went out to them; like the people he had seen in a similar war, in his own place and time, the Civil War had been to him populated not by the soldiers who went into battle screaming and crying for blood, for freedom, for whatever it was that might happen to drive them into firing near pointblank at one another for their cause, but that war, and seemingly this one, was made up of the faces of the innocent who suffered for someone else’s cause. Mostly the faces which watched him and his retinue of warriors ride by were women, young and old, and young boys. None of the males looked to be any older than teenage.
Smoke filtered from within the huts, home fires undoubtedly cooking meager meals on this rainy evening.
No one spoke to them.
The sound of the horse’s hooves on muddy ground echoed within the walls.
The sense of tension overwhelmed Drake and he finally had to break the silence of go mad. “The battle? Who leads it now?”
Warson peered at him from the deepening shadows gathering about them as the sun wound down the horizon, smothered in ragged, black storm clouds. “What mean you, sire?”
“If we are here, then who runs the campaign without us?”
Killian grinned through the mud covering his youthful face. “Worry not, sire, on that count. You struck a blow to the enemy with your heroic act this day. Even now, Lord Balto is running from the fields, followed by his cowardly band of bloodthirsty Vendenian brigands he calls an army. Our men, led by General Genar, give chase over the borderlands of Gothia and into the Disputed Territories.”
Drake turned in his saddle. He tried to find the correct pattern and lilt to his words, so he would sound more like these strange (yet strangely familiar) men. “How…how know you…this?”
Killian looked at Drake as if he were having a joke at his expense, but Drake showed no indication of his words holding the weight of humor. Killian looked to Samhien and Warson. Warson shrugged, giving the younger man a wry smirk, as if to say ‘play along with this strange whim until we understand it better’.
Killian forced his mouth into a straight line, no indication of his own confusion now, the humorless response of a soldier giving information to his officer, his liege. “Sire, the Owl, of course. He has sent us word of how the battle goes.”
Drake’s brow furrowed. The question of how this ‘Owl’, whoever he might be, had done so was on his lips, but he could see the way these men who called him liege watched him warily and worriedly, and so he kept silent. Once again, he decided to keep quiet and gather information as it came to him, rather than risk total discovery that he was not this man they called Duke Draco, their leader and liege.
The road that led to the castle proper angled upwards and was awash with running streams of muddy water, but the war horses, stout beasts that they were, made their swift way up the watery path. Soon the weary party stopped in the near darkness at a great doorway of stone cut into the vast structure that towered above. A single firebrand burned above the doorway, in impossible defiance of the rain. Drake saw a fire which burned in the rain, but decided this was just one more thing which he could learn about without giving away his lack of knowledge.
Before Drake could dismount the door was opened by a duo of grim faced guards in black armor from inside the castle, and out ran a sobbing young woman in a white gown that trailed in the mud behind her. Drake could barely get off the horse in time to catch her as she clung onto him. Pressing her face into his blood stained, muddied chest, she held on tightly. Drake looked down at her, wordless and stunned. This was one of the women from his vision he’d seen inside the cave, just before his impossible appearance here in this new land and time. He found his arms going around her, holding her shaking frame even tighter against himself. Rain cascaded down upon the party, which was utterly silent but the sobbing of the woman in his arms. Despite his sense of utter disorientation, this felt right, no matter how impossible it should be. There was something about the curve of her back in the palm of his armored hands, the way her head fit snugly under his chin, the scent of her long scarlet hair, which was becoming sodden in the downpour, that felt as if she had been created only for him. Her pale, milky smooth flesh shook violently in his arms.
A new voice from the open door pulled his attention from the sobbing beauty wrapped in his arms. “Fear not, Lady Bethany, our Duke is alive and well, as I promised.” Drake peered towards the dim doorway to see a tall, gray-haired man. Belying his seeming ancient years, he stood erectly. In one bony hand, he held a gnarled wooden staff. His smile was warm and genuine. His eyes verily glowed with some inner power. When their gaze met, Drake saw those kindly eyes suddenly light up with surprise, and then his gaze settled into a sort of silent understanding. Nodding, the old man hurried from the doorway, gently pulled the sobbing Lady Bethany from Drake’s hold. “Now, now, my dear,” he said, “let us get everyone inside and out of this downpour.” He looked meaningfully into Drake’s confused gaze. “And we’ll have to see what’s what. Correct, my good Duke Draco?”
Drake thought he understood what the old man meant. “That would be very helpful, sir,” he said, trying to keep his voice and emotions under control.
It took only a few moments more before stablemen came to retrieve the mounts and more servants appeared to help the weary warriors inside. Everyone huddled within a vast stony chamber. There was very little light in this part of the entrance, but Drake could see more light further within. Several more firebrands were posted to either side, high on the walls. In their meager light Drake could see many richly decorated tapestries decorating the walls, a series of multi-colored rugs which led deeper into the castle.
Lady Bethany went to Drake once more, clung to him and kissed his cheeks and forehead. “My Lord,” she said breathlessly, “I felt sure you had been slain. I felt in my blood and bone something terrible had become of you.”
“I-I’m fine,” Drake managed to say as she continued to shower his face with soft, warm kisses. Her lips were full and red, and Drake felt as if he might like to be kissed by them forever.
“Aye, my lady,” Warson assured her, “our heroic Duke received nothing more than a few scratches and bruises. He certainly fared much better than our good Samhien.” Samhien chuckled and held up a bloody arm upon which a long gash still bled. The giant dark-skinned man didn’t seem to be bothered by the wound in the least. Lady Bethany saw the wound and gave a soft cry of dismay. “Oh, my Samhien, my dearest brother! Your poor arm!” Eyes filled now with concern for Samhien, she drew away from Drake and turned to a young dark haired woman standing nearby, began giving her instructions. “Yontelle, please hurry. See to the healers for my brother.”
Samhien laughed even louder, holding the arm high, eyeing the damage with humor. “Sister, tis nothing. I have had worse injuries milking the cows as a child.”
She ignored him. “Yontelle, the healers. Hurry!”
The young woman did as she was told and disappeared through a long purple curtain further down the hall.
“Oh, Owl, we need more light,” Lady Bethany cried. “I cannot see the damage.”
The old man shook his head and gave a soft chuckle. “My lady, worry not. Light you wish, light you shall have.” He struck the staff on the ground and the firebrands all suddenly flared to brighter life around them. Drake jumped and winced against the new light. And in that new light, he saw three things: he and his warriors were even more brutal looking than he first imagined; the old man, Owl, was even older than he first thought; and the Lady Bethany’s beauty was even more stunning than he could have imagined.
But he had no time to appreciate her beauty, because Owl took the opportunity of Lady Bethany’s attention on her brother Samhien to grasp hold of Drake’s arm. “My lady,” he said, “I must now speak with our good Duke Draco for a few moments. We must speak of the battle past and the battle to come. Lord Balto will not take this lose well. Prepare, we must.”
Lady Bethany gave Drake one more meaningful, promising glance, and smiled. Then she turned her attentions to her bleeding brother and the others as Owl hustled Drake away from them. Drake saw Warson, Samhien and Killian trade silent glances as he left the room.
Owl stayed quiet as he led Drake down a large stone hallway, now brightly alight with huge scones and brands sitting on the floor and hanging from the wall. He had no time to give more than a cursory appreciative glance to the many beautiful tapestries and richly loomed long runner rugs that seemed to cover most of the hallway. Drake wanted to ask questions—many questions—but when he tried to speak, the old man gave him a warning finger to his lips to stay silent for now.
Drake held his questions in check for the moment, allowing the old man- who moved with an alacrity which belied his seeming ancientness- to lead him deeper into the castle.
They stopped at a broad and weathered gray wooden doorway. Owl touched the wood, mumbled something softly, and then the door gave a low click sound, and swung open soundlessly. Owl looked over his shoulder at Drake’s confused face. “I know you are not Duke Draco,” he said. “Now we shall find out your true self. Come inside.” He motioned for Drake to move past him.
Drake did so slowly, but he found himself stopping after only a few steps inside, however, because he was suddenly overwhelmed by the contents of the room.
The room seemed to stretch far away into shadows, although it was lit by several strange and unseen green and blue glowing lights. At least unseen to him, for he could not find the origin of their glow. But what the lights illuminated was even stranger than their sourceless illumination. Glass beakers crouched upon long wooden tables and cabinets; some were filled with dark fluids, others with liquids that almost seemed to give off their own light. There were also many metallic and glass tubes that ran here and there, ending in tubes and wooden boxes. Strange metallic wheels sat motionless near large contraptions whose nature Drake could never guess. Charts and posters displaying unknown planets and strange star paths hung upon the cold stone walls. Although shadows held more power than light here, Drake felt the place was clean nonetheless; there was nothing dank or moldy about the chamber in the least. It was as if the darkness were part of the room itself, a side effect, or even a needful thing for the things which resided within it.
Owl slid past him, closed the door behind them. The old man muttered more soft words and the low green and blue lights began to brighten slowly until the entire room filled with more illumination. Unlike the sudden flare of firebrands which Owl had caused earlier, this was a softer light, though no less bright.
He moved to the center of the room, leaving a still stunned Drake standing by the doorway, gaping at the strange devices. A large stone raised dais took up most of the center of the chamber; upon it several unknown symbols covered its weathered stones. Owl took the two steps up into the center of the dais and turned back to look at Drake. “So, young man, the true question is: who are you?”
Drake stared at the old man, feeling something hard and angry blossom in his gut. It took control of the fear and uncertainty he’d been feeling since finding himself fighting for his life against a veritable giant of a man intent on killing him. Drake took a couple of steps into the room, his voice edged with a cool fury. “Maybe I have a few questions before I start answering anything for you, sir.”
Owl’s smile remained, but Drake could see his brow furrow. He tapped thin fingers against the smooth wood of his staff, watching Drake with his dark eyes. “Mayhaps you are right. Mayhaps it is only fair to allow you some answers first.” The old man found an ancient tall-backed wooden chair near a set of black thinly lined symbols and he sat, motioned for Drake to come closer. Drake did so, glancing nervously around the cluttered chamber. Again, he had that disorienting sense that the unfamiliar machinery should mean something to him, but shaking off the sensation, he forced his attention back on Owl’s smiling, waiting visage. “Speak, my young friend,” said Owl. “What would you know?”
“Well, first off,” Drake said, “where in blue blazes am I? What is this place? Who are those men who were with me? Who was the woman? Who are you? What—”
Owl gave a hearty laugh, holding his hand up to forestall Drake’s confused barrage of rapid fire questions. “Hold, young man. Please. I shall answer all, in good time.”
“This seems as good a time as any to me,” Drake replied.
Owl nodded. “Yes, of course,” he said. “But mayhaps you’d care for refreshments before we begin? Fighting for one’s life can be thirsty work, yes? And surely you must be hungry. When last did you eat?” The ancient magician signaled towards another chair near his own. Drake hesitated for a moment, more eager to know where he was and what had happened to him, than his stomach pangs, but he was thirsty, and truthfully he couldn’t remember the last meal he’d eaten. Giving a silent shrug, he moved to sit next to Owl.
“I have wine, if that pleases,” said the old man. “My food is simple, for I do not eat as heartily as you warriors, being a simple conjuror and spell binder.” He stood suddenly, and again, Drake was surprised at how quickly he could move for someone who appeared to be so advanced in years. If Drake had to guess his age from just his face, he would have put told him as eighty or more years. But his strong voice and his quick movements belied that guess. Owl moved to a small cabinet off to one side, rummaged through it for drink and food, and soon returned with both. He laid them out before Drake, pouring a rich, thick red wine in two glasses, placed them next to a small silver platter of cheeses and breads. “This should take the edge off of both thirst and hunger, while I explain what has happened, young man.”
Drake smelled the wine. His mouth salivated and with the first swallow he tasted its strong, fruity favor. The liquor burned through his body like a warm wave of peace. Owl motioned toward the food. Drake took several roughly broken cubes of soft white cheese and a hunk of black bread. His first few bites were small and polite, but he soon found his hunger was stronger than his manners, and he ate the simple food with gusto. He hadn’t realized just how ravenous he’d become until he began to eat. While he ate, Owl began his tale.
“I know not exactly about your time and place, but I do know you probably feel as if you’ve seen this place before, for all its utter strangeness. Am I correct?”
Drake nodded, swallowing more wine. Somehow it did not surprise him that the old man knew about the odd sensation of knowing and not knowing about this place.
“You are in a world known to we who live here as Bard. Currently you reside within Castle Dracon, the hereditary seat of power for the Draco family. And whether you, intended it or not, have somehow slipped from your own world to Bard, taking the place, apparently, of our good lord Duke Draco. And at a most inopportune time, too, I might add. This is a most important battle the Duke was waging. It may be lost now because of your sudden switching of place and time.”
Drake felt the food in his stomach sitting like cold rocks as Owl told him more. Soon, he had forgotten the food and wine, and he sat mutely, wide eyed, as the old man told him more. He was what they called a doppelganger, a person who had a twin self. He had switched places, or taken this Duke Draco’s place, for now. Owl told him that is was a rare occurrence in these years. He also explained the men who had ridden with him earlier were his closest advisors, his closest friends, like brothers. They were his strongest, most able warriors, each a great leader of men in his own right. Owl told him about the young woman with scarlet hair and milky pale skin. Her name was Lady Bethany. “Duke Draco’s betrothed,” the old man added. “And she is one of the last of the Blood.”
“What’s the Blood?” asked Drake, trying to let all of this impossible information find purchase in his confused, tumultuous mind.
“The Blood are a race of men and women who once held great power in Bard.” Owl’s eyes held him rigid. “Once, they were plentiful, and they ruled all other races with equality and a firm hand. But that was in ancient times, long, long ago. Almost out of memory now. In those times, they were much stronger. But with the passing eons, breeding outside their race has made them less so. Still, Lady Bethany has much power in her own right.” The old man leaned forward. “Do you remember how she cried that she felt something had happened to you?”
Drake nodded, remembering the feel of her soft warm body pressed against his, and how right it had felt, despite that he’d never actually seen her before, except in his vision.
“That was her power calling within her. The Blood. She knew you had taken her lover’s place, even if she knew not exactly what’s happened to him. She felt the change.”
Drake sat silent for a moment. Shifted through time and place? No, this was impossible.
When Owl looked to him and waited for an even trade of information, Drake felt obliged to at least give him his name and the story of how he’d come to find himself here in Bard. And as he recited his story, he told the old man about the red jewel in the cave. He told the old wizard about it. Owl’s eyes clouded with confusion and then a sort of fearfulness which made Drake feel that chill creep up his spine again.
“Tis The Eye of Time,” Owl muttered almost to himself. “But how? It should have remained buried for another several eons. Something must have disturbed its rest.” Then he focused his dark powerful eyes on Drake again. “And why would it choose you to come here, snatch away the one man in Bard who might have fought to keep it safe?”
“One other thing about this vision I had, sir,” Drake said. “I saw Lady Bethany. That’s why I was confused when she appeared tonight.”
Owl smiled. “Yes, well, as I said: she is of The Blood. Her power could be tied to The Eye of Time in some manner I have yet to see or understand.”
“But there was another woman, too,” Drake added, knowing before he said it that the information he was about to convey would add yet another layer of dread to this strange new world he’d found himself. He could still feel her malevolent hatred for him from his vision. He described the dark haired woman, with evil eyes, filled with bloodlust.
And as he feared Owl’s face drained of color. “You are sure of this woman?’
Drake nodded.
The old man heaved a heavy sigh. Suddenly, he looked as old as Drake first guessed. Very ancient and very weary.
“Sir Drake,” he said, eyes filled with quiet fear, “mayhaps we should get some sleep this night. For on the morrow we must not only fight a battle, but discover what evil she intends and how she and The Eye of Time are linked. And, most importantly, how our destinies have become intertwined. I fear a great evil is at work now, young man. An evil that means to devour us all.”

--End installment of The Eye of Time--
(For links to all previous chapters in order of appearance, please see above this newest installment.)