First three chapters from book1 of "The Knights of Elam"

"The children of the Vanquished shall awaken. The bloodline of Kings shall fall."
Taken from the original transcript of Valden's prophecy.

For a thousand years Endestra has known peace, but as Keb, an apprentice of the Knights of Elam faces his trials to join the brotherhood, an ancient prophecy is given life, casting brother against brother, tearing the kingdom apart as rival houses vie for power and truths buried will threaten the safety of all.


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2. The Knight's apprentice

The child's tears came with an unbidden cry as the calloused hand of his mother slapped harshly across his young face, drawing blood on his cheek from the sharp edges of the stone in the ring seated on her middle finger.

“Stop yer screachin' yer little shit” spluttered the woman behind the hand as she shoved him forward. “Get the God's Damned cart down the hill boy”.

The child clearly expecting what was about to follow his mothers vile tirade, ducked beneath another blow and hefted the handle of the cart the few inches off the floor that his youthful arms could manage and trying to keep it stable, turned the wobbly vehicle with the precarious load of his mothers market wares down the hillside away from the other marketeers packing up their goods and set off towards their home in the busy harbour town that nestled beneath Elam Castle.

 

On the battlements above Kebbin Durst brushed a strand of coal black hair from his face and shook his head as he watched the scene below. If the Gods were as just as the scriptures claim he thought then such women should be prevented from ever bearing children, a wry smile crossing his face at the irony  that were such thoughts made manifest, they would by definition have prevented his own birth.

He looked up towards the sun. Maybe two hours left before sunset, two last hours of freedom before he would have to hand himself over to the care of the Sisters of Titus for the night vigil. No way out of it now though.

He stood down from the battlement and stepped along the walkway nodding to some of the sentries stood to duty along the crenelations, maintaining the security of the keep, with others he stopped and spoke briefly, accepting their well wishes, but gradually made his way to the top of the knights tower where a broad chested man, easily scratching seven foot, with dark flowing hair and a twisted scar on his left cheek awaited him with a smile. Keb smiled back his mind immediately eased by the towering presence of Sir Kalvan Seer.

“Master.” said Keb with a small bow.

“Not for much longer boy, not for much longer.” Kalvan nodded to the courtyard below. He was an extremely muscular man, a full head height taller than Keb with a powerful physique borne of years of training. “Tomorrow you become a knight.”

“If I survive the trials anyway” sighed Keb following Kalvan's gaze.

Below them a team of workers were busily constructing a combat arena flanked by three tiers of benches for viewing the events within. Over the night while he spent vigil alone, the construction would be completed and readied for the morning crowds.

“Keb,” said Kalvan, placing his hand on the shoulder of his former pupil “I won't lie to you, the trials are lethal, they have to be, but have the faith in yourself that I do.”

“I'm only what your training has made me.” he replied humbly.

Kalvan sniffed, “ Well that's true enough.. and don't you be forgetting it!” His laugh was a needle bursting the bubble of tension between them. “Come on now, time runs short lad. Let's get you a hot meal before those blasted sisters get their hands on you!”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” As a child he had existed on what meagre scraps his mother would leave him, or what he'd been forced to steal on the days she never appeared. The food at the castle had been a pleasure he hadn't known existed. His stomach rumbled loudly, giving its heartfelt agreement and he followed his former master down through the keep to the bustling kitchens below.

As soon as they stepped through the door the smells of hot lamb stew and freshly baked bread assailed them. Keb looked with fondness around the room that had occupied so much of his childhood. Two hogs were slowly rotating on spits, meat sizzling, next to two large, steaming, cauldrons of the stew. Racks of copper pans and pots hung in rows against the whitewashed walls. Strings of onions and garlic dangled from beams in the corner. Kitchen maids dashed backwards and forwards from the larders and storerooms that adjoined it, one carrying a big basket of hot breads, and in the middle of it all, marshalling the chaos was Lizbeth the cook and absolute ruler of her domain. Far from being the plump middle aged woman that seemed to hold the post of cook in many of the castles and keeps both men had visited over their years, Lizbeth was slender, attractive and immaculate in her attire her long blonde hair tied back into a pony tail that reached halfway down her back. She turned at the sound of the door opening and her eyes lit up at the sight of Kalvan's muscular frame stepping through it. While Keb could walk through just below the frame Kalvan had to duck slightly from his greater height. He Smiled lovingly at her he as he came forward and greeted her with a kiss, her slender hands reached up around his neck pulling him close.

“Busy day?” he asked when she finally released him.

“Isn't it always?” She called over to a blonde kitchen girl of no more than eleven. “Sara, can you get these knights some food please?” The girl nodded obediently and dashed off as Lizbeth turned her attention to Keb. “Well, well.. and to think that when I first knew you there was nothing of you but skin and bones. Now here you are ready to become a full knight!” she gave him a brief hug as Sara returned with two bowls of the lamb stew, slabs of hot crusty bread, and a big chunks of cheese.

“There you go boys,” said Lizbeth, “go enjoy... and Keb, good luck tomorrow.” She kissed his cheek affectionately then turned to Kalvan. “Take care of him husband.”

Kalvan snorted “Anyone would think the boy was ours the way you go on”

Keb saw the twinge of sadness in her eyes as she said, “I couldn't have wished for a better son if he had been.” Keb's heart went out to her then, at twenty he was certainly of an age to have been hers and I would have been happy to have been your son he thought to himself. He was one of the few who knew that after many miscarriages their only natural child that went to term had been still born. Only the three of them had been there the morning the sisters had buried the infant.

 

With food in hand they followed the procession of red robes, a once mocking but now time honoured name for the servants of the brotherhood, to Elam's great hall and chose a solid looking table at the far end to share their meal together, the two men barely getting to their seats before a pasty looking steward brought over two tankards of ale which they received gratefully. Keb dipped the crust of his bread into the stew and took a bite of the meaty broth. Savoury, salty, the meat soft, tender, falling apart on his tongue. Just the way he liked it. Kalvan had been truly lucky the day he had caught Lizbeth's eye he mused.

Around the hall red robes were shifting tables and chairs, laying out fresh reeds and flowers, replacing candles and hanging decorations. For a thousand years the great hall had stood as the heart of the castle, great oak beams, tarred black, criss-crossed the vaulted arch ceiling like the threads of a spiders web, interconnecting and supporting each other. Tomorrow, beneath that ceiling, there would be a feast in celebration of his success or in mourning of my death he thought morbidly. Kalvan looking at his apprentice clearly realised what was going through his mind and gave him a nudge.

“Stop that, the more you focus on the worst the more you bring it on yourself.”

“Do I? What if being too confident gets me killed? I don't know what to think if I'm honest. How did you cope with the trials Kal?”

Kalvan coughed into his drink. “Actually Keb, I never did.”

“Really? How? I mean everyone has to take the trials don't they?”

“Well yes, unless you're knighted by the King himself.”

“You were knighted by the King?” Keb was astonished, he'd never known anyone pass into knighthood other than through the trials.

“I was, yes.” Kalvan looked at the younger knight, and pre-empting the following question, said “It was at the start of the Brogue uprising before you had even been born.”

“The Brogue...” said Keb quietly, “before you brought me here I spent half my childhood terrified of them.”

“I know lad, I remember your nightmares.”

You really don't, thought Keb, the image of his mother's bloodsoaked body fresh in his mind. Laying on the ground, the brogue axe buried in her chest. “So what happened?” he asked, trying to push back the memory. His voice was whispered, strained, his throat constricted with suppressed emotion.

“I was part of Prince Simeon's guard when we were ambushed by raiders.”

“Where were you?”

“On a trade visit to Charrock. In he grasslands below mount Vestra.” Kalvan answered realising too late the corner he'd backed himself into.

“That was just a few miles from home.”

“Yes. It was.” Kalvan took a long swig from the ale, hoping Keb would probe no further. “My master Sir Dunstain was killed instantly in their first attack by an arrow to his neck, so were two other knights. Then came the charge. I don't want to bring back bad memories, but you know full well the ferociousness of Brogue warriors.”

“Yes.” The tightness in his neck was back.

“Thirty of them attacked us, screaming their war cries they charged us with spears, axes and bows. The Prince ordered all the men to pull back in a defensive ring but was struck in the leg by an arrow before we could come together. I saw him fall, saw a second warrior approach axe in hand, and then in an instant I can barely recall I was between them face to face with what would turn out to be their leader with Sir Dunstain's sword in my hand. He was quick and mean, his first strike left me with this little memento” he said pointing to the scar on his face, “That certainly got my attention. I swung back hard with the sword, deflecting his blows, gradually getting past his defences until I drove it through him. Then more were upon us and it all becomes a bloody mess to me, but by the time it was over and the surviving Brogue had fled, there were four bodies at my feet and my arm felt so heavy I didn't think that I could lift so much as a spoon, and when I looked round three more knights had fallen. The only thing I really remember between my first kill and the last was the overpowering thought that no-one could hurt my Prince.” He looked at his former student seriously. “It's a strange thing Keb, you can spend months training to kill, but nothing truly prepares you for the first time you take a life. For me, I looked at the blood and the death and I spent the next hour throwing up much to the amusement of the others including the Prince, but the King still knighted me when we returned to the palace. Sir Dunstain and the others that died were buried there within sight of the sacred Eldertrees. I've always stopped to visit his grave whenever I visit the palace.”

“Yet you've never told me this tale before?” A question as much as a statement.

“It never seemed to be the time or place, here and now however I can't imagine there ever being a better one.” He looked up as a page approached nervously “What is it boy?”

The youth stepped forward and spoke quietly to Kalvan who nodded as he listened “Of course. He'll be on his way now.” he turned to his former pupil. “Well Keb it seems time has caught up with us, this young man was sent by the sisters to retrieve you.” he looked back to the page who was still hovering beside them and waved him away, “you can go now, no need for you to wait.”

“Make sure you get your rest Keb and I shall see you in the morning,” he said bringing his attention back to his former apprentice as the page scurried off, “but know now, whatever happens tomorrow that I have always been so very proud to have had you at my side for these many years.” He gave his Keb a single pat on the back as he took his bowl and tankard and headed back towards the kitchens. At the doorway he stopped and looked back towards the table they had shared to be sure no-one had overheard his tale. Had he been foolish to tell that story? There were many dangers in talking too openly about that period of his life and not only to him. Too many damned secrets and lies.

 

Four inter-spaced chandeliers bathed the chapel's walls in a warm glow as Keb pushed open the door and stepped inside. He had been a visitor to it many times in the past, had stood or sat in the four rows of pews to give thanks to the four Gods, most commonly to Lot the God of peace and life, but occasionally he had also come to offer prayers for the fallen to Tol the God of war and death. Sometimes you would see farmers praying to Thesies Goddess of the land or sailors praying to Ithies Goddess of the sea but today the chapel was empty of all other visitors. Keb walked through the chapel and into the chancel where four sisters of Titus, the heavenly home of the Gods, stood around a raised dais awaiting him. Another figure stood aside from them and smiled invitingly at him from beneath a veil. Even through it he recognised Sister Katrin the spiritual leader of Elam.

“Enter Kebbin Durst, be at peace in the safety of this house and place yourself in our hands.”

“In your hands I place myself.” His response automatic, learned by rote.

She lifted her veil to reveal an attractive raven haired woman in her forties, she was full figured and womanly and carried an air of serenity that surrounded her like an invisible cloak.

She pointed to the stone dais before him. “Please kneel young knight.”

Keb followed her lead and dropped to his knees . He looked down. Carved into the stone was a spread winged ice dragon, the symbol of his order. He brushed his fingers against its comforting outline as robed hands began to remove his armour and outer garments. To his youthful horror as the feminine hands lifted his shirt from his back he felt his manhood twitch and for one awful moment he feared they would strip him entirely and expose his unwilling reaction to their attentions but twenty minutes later he was sat in a hot bath washing his body with the soap that had been left for him, feeling extremely grateful that his blushes had been spared when sister Katrin had led him here in his under garments where all had been prepared in readiness. He lathered the soap in his hand and massaged it into his scalp enjoying the freshness the bath brought. Once rinsed he dried himself and got dressed into the simple white robe that had been left for him by the sisters. Katrin re-entered once he was dressed and pulling a pair of sharpened scissors from a pocket in her robe, sat him down on a rickety chair that wobbled unsteadily if he did anything but sit perfectly still to cut a few inches off the length of his hair. The others returned shortly after and Keb was led into a simply decorated room with whitewashed walls. In one corner a low bed carried the spread winged dragon emblem stitched into a white sheet, while an altar to the four Gods, complete with carved figureheads of their likenesses was lit in the opposite corner by candles flickering in the draught of the open doorway. With Keb safely delivered to his room, the other sisters departed leaving just Katrin, who placed a cool, gentle hand on Keb's forehead.

“While you rest, we will keep vigil, While you reflect on the morrow we will guard you in the now. Sleep well Kebbin Durst, this night you are safe in our care,” and so saying she closed the door to the small room leaving him alone with his thoughts.

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