What Odd Behavior For Such A Brave Warrior!
The sun shone bright in a cloudless sky over the citadel and castle of Stormhaven, the great imperial capital of Tarkus. Yet the deep sense of foreboding that inexorably chiseled away at the soul of every resident, noble and peasant alike, the ever-present fret and worry over an imminent horror too terrifying to even give public voice to, seemed to cast a long, dark, engulfing shadow over the populace.
The signs were all there; The endless lightning storm in the southern sky. The disturbing omens – cats chasing dogs, a red moon, horses losing all discipline and bolting from their stables at night – reported by wild-eyed peasants fleeing to Stormhaven, again from the south. From the hinterlands of the secluded Castle Shadowgate.
The name of the edifice alone was enough to chill the humors of learned men about court. Castle Shadowgate was the black pock-mark on the face of the empire. Nestled in a barren valley surrounded on three sides by the impassible crags of the Darken mountains and by imposing cliffs on the fourth, no feudal lord dared lay claim to Shadowgate as part of his fiefdom. Trade highways went around and took a wide berth, but it wasn’t merely because the mountains stood in the way. Legends of witchcraft, ghastly alchemic experiments, dark wizardry, and demon worship down through the centuries swirled around that place, a ring around it as daunting as the rock formations.
For all the legend and myth and story, there was one incontrovertible fact: One of the lost circle of twelve had returned, and turned renegade. Talimar, or as he was now known, The Warlock Lord, had found a way through the mountains and into Castle Shadowgate. And that was very bad news indeed.
As word spread, many people fled the countryside and clamored for sanctuary at the city walls of Stormhaven. Many others remained, not out of a sense of courage, but of resigned futility. Where could one run to escape the evils of Shadowgate as unleashed and commanded by the wicked Warlock Lord? Stormhaven wouldn’t survive, either, and neither would the people.
Emperor Otto the Questionable fretted and paced through a week of virtually sleepless nights. His proud mane of blond hair seemed to wither and gray and grow pallid before the very eyes of the courtiers.
“Lakmir!” he implored of the aged royal counselor and high wizard of the court, “What of the Prophecy of the Line of Kings?”
“What of it?” Lakmir replied hopelessly.
“You know, The Prophecy of The Line Of Kings!” the Emperor reminded Lakmir desperately. “In the past our land was ruled by a line of great warrior-kings who ruled and protected the land from enemies both mortal and supernatural. Of Gerogne, the great warrior-wizard who sealed away the Evil and Mighty Behemoth in the chasms over which Castle Shadowgate now stands! Surely, if we can only find the last remaining heir of that enchanted royal line, we can be delivered into salvation from whatever plot The Warlock Lord is hatching!”
“Perhaps he could,” Lakmir replied. “It’s a shame you stripped that line of all titles, lands, and power when you were making your big and oh so important imperial power grab, forced yourself upon the now-erstwhile queen of that family, and butchered all the male members of that holy issue. Because we sure could use one of them now.”
“Look, Lakmir,” The Emperor responded desperately, “This is no time to place blame! We’ve got to find the last remaining heir!”
“But there isn’t one, Your Majesty,” Lakmir sadly replied.
“Of course there is, Lakmir!” The Emperor implored.
“No there isn’t, your majesty, you severed the male line.”
“But not the female line,” The Emperor countered, a sudden smirk of confidence creeping onto his face. “Remember?”
“Ah yes,” Lakmir remembered. It had been eighteen years ago, the Emperor had sent his pregnant wife, the female head of the Line Of Ancient Warrior Kings, into seclusion and hiding, to prevent her assassination by his rivals in the great power grab from which the empire had been borne. His son, the child she carried, was the last of the line of great warrior kings.
Maybe they could find him.
What the hell, Lakmir thought, it was worth a try.
“Very well, your majesty,” Lakmir replied. “I shall find your son, and prepare him for his destiny. But alas, only you know the details of where mother and son are hiding and their assumed identity. Only you know where to look for them.”
“Yes, that’s true,” the emperor recalled.
“So, we ride at once, your majesty?”
The Emperor stammered and stuttered and mumbled, suddenly nervous. “Uh, actually, I, uh, think I had better stay here. And ah, you know, guard the castle.”
“Uh-huh,” Lakmir nodded skeptically.
“You know, be a rock of resolve, inspire the people, be a true leader,” the emperor said.
“Right,” Lakmir sighed. “So where do I look?”
“They’re living in a wooden cottage on the edge of the Makenmire Forest, posing as the family of a hearty Woodsman. The Woodsman is in fact one of my finest knights, in guise as a commoner.”
“Very well,” Lakmir said, “I’m on my way.”
“Gutless, spineless, buffoon,” Lakmir muttered in reference to the king as he spurred his horse onward in the direction of the Makenmire Forest and, he hoped, the savior of the land from the threat posed by the Warlock Lord in Castle Shadowgate. Before long, he arrived at the forest’s edge, where he found the lonely wooden cottage described by the desperate emperor. Above the door hung a wooden sign, with script written in the traditional runes of the old tongue. A master of letters and transcription, Lakmir translated the text quickly:
“Holgar: A Common Woodsman.”
“This is it,” Lakmir told himself. Taking care not to get his extensive white beard tangled in the harness as he dismounted, he walked toward the cottage with a briskness of step uncommon amongst men his age.
He knocked on the door, and a rotund, homely woman answered the door.
“Hello?” she asked in a heavily-accented voice.
“Excellent disguise, mum,” Lakmir complimented the crone. “I cannot tell the difference between you and any common peasant woman. I bear bad news, I am afraid. I, The Wizard Lakmir, have been charged by your husband Otto the Questionable, the Emperor of Tarkus, to retrieve your son and thrust him out of his hiding at long last into his rightful princely place. For a crisis has arisen; namely, the threat of a great evil emanating from the malevolent turrets of Castle Shadowgate. The Line of Great Warrior Kings is our only hope. Your son, milady, is our only hope.”
“Huh?” the wench asked, utterly confused.
“The Prince!” Lakmir implored. “Where is he? Where is your son?”
“Oh, you want to talk to Donald, then!” the hag replied, a wave of realization coming over her face. “Come on in, he’s in the back,” she instructed, accent as thick as ever. Even Lakmir, who knew her real identity, was having a difficult time believing her voice was genuine.
Soon, Lakmir caught his first glimpse of the man who would save them all. He seemed an unlikely figure for the task. Sitting alone, by a lamp, hunched over a desk, reviewing a series of large scrolls, sat a wiry, slight, muscle-less and rather peevish looking young man, holding a crude magnifying glass to his eye. On his back he sported a ridiculously oversized knapsack composed of animal hides.
“Donald” the queen bellowed in her affected crude tone. “You’ve got a vistor! Get your head out of those lists!”
“But mom!” the boy whined, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve updated my list of all the items in my possession!”
The queen smacked the boy in the head, forcing him to drop the looking glass, and nearly causing the lamp to fall over and set the list alight. Donald gasped loudly as he saw his precious scrolls come so close to destruction.
“Come, lad,” Lakmir announced. “It is time, my young liege, for you to fulfill the destiny of your bloodline. You are the one who must save us all!”
“Huh?” was the most sophisticated reply Donald could muster.
“Only you, Heir Of The Line Of Kings, can save us now from the ambitions of the evil Warlock Lord! Come, your training awaits. Your briefing awaits. Castle Shadowgate awaits.”
Upon mention of the dread fortress, Donald gasped, and proceeded to quiver fearfully where he sat, and moisten the crotch of his leggings.
“Within the Castle Shadowgate lies your quest. The dreaded Warlock will use his Black Magic to raise the Behemoth from the dark depths. The combination of his evil arts and the great Titan's power will surely destroy us all!! You are the last of the line of Kings, the seed of prophecy that was foretold long ago. Only you can stop the Evil One from darkening our World forever!! Fare thee well. God willing, you will succeed. For our sake, you must.”
Lakmir turned to the queen. “I shall take your great son to Stormhaven Castle, and train him and inform him as best I can for this daunting task that falls to him. I ask that you pray for our success, my empress.
“What, you wanna take Donald off our hands?” the woman asked in surprise. She suddenly beamed. “Good riddance! You’re welcome to him. Useless sod can’t even swing a woodcutting axe once without falling about all over the place and hurting himself. Go on boy, go on, off with the crazy old man, son.”
“But I don’t want to go, mommy!” the lad whined. “He’s trying to take me to Castle Shadowgate! Mommie!” But his pleading was to no avail. Lakmir, mumbling a quick incantation for strength, grabbed the boy by the wrist and bodily dragged his reluctant frame out of the cottage and onto the back of the horse.
Meanwhile, fifty yards to the north, along the forest’s edge, a big burly man clad in shiny armor poorly concealed by a piecemeal jerkin of animal hides – the usual garb of a woodsman – looked on from outside the wooden cottage where he had been stationed 18 years ago to be undercover as a common woodsman and act as guardian to the Empress and her son, the Last of The Line Of Kings, as well as the Crown Prince. He watched as the somewhat older but very familiar form of Wizard Lakmir dragged the young man widely known amongst the commoners in the area as Donald the Lame, his customary scrolls in tow, up onto the back of an imperial steed and rode off towards the castle.
“Uh, Son?” The poorly disguised knight called out.
“Yes, Father?” a voice replied as the cottage door swung open and a massive lad, about 18 years of age and boasting the body of an idealized Norse God, bounded into view.
“You know that strict combat training regimen I’ve had you on for the past two years, and the great mission I’ve alluded to but never divulged to you?” the Knight asked.
“Yes?” the true prince asked.
“Nevermind; It was a bunch of bullcrap.”
“Okay.” The true heir of the line of warrior-kings answered, and nonchalantly went back inside.
“But I’m telling you there must be some mistake!” Donald implored from a kneeling position in the center of the imperial court. “I’m not the prince!”
“For the sake of your safety and preserving your secret identity, my wife and my brave knight were instructed never to tell you of your true origins,” Otto announce, more than a little enamored with the prescience and cunning of his idea.
“But I can’t be a legendary hero or a prince!” Donald whined. “Look at me! I’m scrawny! I’m a total coward! Everything scares me!”
A young and particularly irreverent lower-level knight clad in cheap armor and a green tunic habitually stroked his curly hair as he turned to an older male courtier to his immediate left and whispered: “A coward? Well, that proves it then; he must be Otto’s son.”
The older courtier nodded slightly, trying to repress a smirk.
“Nonsense, my boy!” Otto jovially bellowed. “You are descended from the line of warrior kings that has protected Tarkus from time immemorial. And moreover, you’re my son! Royal and courageous blue blood flows through your veins! Why, you’re every bit as brave as I am!”
Immediately the court erupted with nervous coughing fits designed to mask ripples of insolent laughter.
“Lakmir,” Otto the Questionable shouted, standing up to his full imposing height of 5 feet 7 inches, “Take my son away, and arm him with all the knowledge and skills he will need to fulfill his sacred destiny!”
The court rejoiced. Lakmir grabbed Donald by the arm and led him out of the court and towards his quarters in the tall left tower of Castle Stormhaven. Soon, all that remained where Donald had knelt was a few of his customary scraps of parchment littered on the floor of the court.
“In olden times, Castle Shadowgate was notorious for its multifarious secret passageways and booby traps,” Lakmir lectured. “Many of which must still be in effect today. Once you are inside, Donald, be wary, and assume nothing. At any point, a false move could spell your grisly doom.”
Donald gasped involuntarily and his eyes quickly scanned the room for some sort of exit.
“And be careful to take note of any and all tokens you may find throughout the castle. Even the most innocuous scroll or stone might be of some use in unlocking one of the many puzzles and mazes you are certain to encounter. Then again, anything you pick up might be useless. Unfortunately, the tricks of Castle Shadowgate are so numerous and complex there truly is no way for any mortal to know.”
Lakmir paused, took a deep breath, and looked hard at Donald.
“But you’re fated to be the hero of destiny by your ancestry, so you shouldn’t have any problem. Theoretically speaking.”
“Uh, hypothetically speaking,” Donald squeaked timidly, dreading the answer, “What if there were some horrible case of mistaken identity, and I wasn’t from the line of warrior kings, and I were sent to Castle Shadowgate under false pretenses?”
Lakmir’s eyebrows arched in surprise as he looked at the boy. “Oh, without breeding on your side, naturally you’d be brutally slaughtered almost immediately,” Lakmir responded casually, “And we’d be doomed to whatever horrible fate Talimar has in plan for all of Tarkus.”
Donald felt the cloth of his leggings grow damp, dark, and warm in and around his groin area as he broke into a cold sweat.
“Anyway, as I was about to say,” Lakmir coughed before continuing, “Since just about anything you find might be of use, or on the other hand might not be, it shall be imperative that you both have a large carrying capacity for items, and an intimate knowledge of what items you have. It is surely no accident that you come to us bearing that large bundle of scrolls – excellent for writing an inventory – and such a voluminous knapsack,” Lakmir commented, gently running his hand over the fabric of Donald’s huge knapsack which, stuffed with trinkets to maximum capacity as it currently was, stretched from the height of his scalp to halfway down his calves.
“Hmm,” Lakmir exhaled positively, “This is Griffon-skin, isn’t it?”
“No,” Donald replied, in a terrified peep. “I made it out of, um...” he trailed off nervously. Whatever animal involuntarily donated its hide to the making of this knapsack, it was something considerably less impressive than a griffon.
“Lion?” Lakmir asked, half with hope, half with assumption that the Hero of Destiny had already slaughtered some mighty and dangerous beast as a lad. After all, didn’t they all do that? He seemed to forget that lions were not native to Tarkus at all, let alone Makenmire forest.
“No,” Donald replied.
“Oh,” Lakmir exclaimed. “Oh, well, this feels so good, and so sturdy, yes, indeed. It must have been some animal very...hard...to kill.”
“Uh, actually,” Donald confessed, “it’s made from weasels.”
Lakmir yanked his hand back from the fabric as though stung by a scorpion. “Weasels? WEASELS?” He bellowed indignantly.
“Yes,” Donald said.
“The Last Descendant of The Line Of Warrior Kings spent his childhood vanquishing not griffons, not lions, not even wolves, but WEASELS?” Lakmir howled in furious disbelief.
“Sorry, but you see, I’m not actually,” Donald started to mumble, but Lakmir quickly interrupted.
“Hmm, I suppose tales of a peasant lad killing griffons or lions would have spread through the land and reached Talimar, alerting him to your existence,” Lakmir muttered and he began to pace nervously and angrily about the magically enclosed room. “Maybe it’s best this way.” his voice trailed off.
“Right, well, too late for anything else now,” Lakmir sighed. “Empty out that weasel-sack, Donald.”
Donald timidly unhinged the latches – for this was a time before zippers – on his weasel-sack, and began to pull out his prized belongings, slowly.”
“With haste, hero, with haste!” Lakmir spurred Donald onward. “Don’t want anything taking up space that could go to something vital held inside Castle Shadowgate,” Lakmir rationalized as he reached into the weasel-sack with noticeable trepidation at touching weasel skin and began helping Donald pull various articles out of the bag.
Books, scrolls, crudely fashioned peasant approximations of religious artifacts, something that looked suspiciously like a high-grade hunting crossbow, a quiver of bolts, all were tossed to the floor of the room.
“Won’t have much need for any of this nonsense inside the castle,” Lakmir commented as he grasped a dried and pressed four-leaf clover, encased in transparent paler and carelessly threw it to the floor.
Donald recognized it and gasped in horror. “I need that! That’s my lucky charm!”
“Not where you’re going, Don,” Lakmir coolly replied.