First Chapter Of Zac's Destiny
Zac awoke with a start. Raised voices sliced through the darkness as booted feet hurried across the cobblestones of the castle’s courtyard.
This is it, thought the boy, but I’m not ready.
Fighting down the fear threatening to paralyse him where he lay on the straw of the stable floor, Zac climbed to his feet on sleep-weary legs. His eyes searched the stable for anything he could use to defend himself, his head whipping this way and that. The horses were agitated, stamping their hooves and snorting. Zac tried to calm the nearest with a stroke as he scanned the dark interior. Booted feet came nearer as someone else ran past the wide wooden doors. They must have carried a burning torch, because the light through the cracks in the wood glinted off the pitchfork leaning against the wall near to the door. Dashing over, the boy grabbed the two pronged tool, the nearest thing he had to a weapon. At the door he hesitated, just for a moment. Shouts rent the cool night air, and Zac heard the Baron’s voice ring out in command, calling his men to order. Holding the pitchfork in front of him, the stable boy unbarred the wooden door, one-handed. Before he might have time to regret his decision, he pulled it open wide, and stepped out.
Outside, the clamour was louder. Soldiers ran across the courtyard obeying commands, and shouting orders to others. Burning torches had been lit to illuminate the courtyard, though many areas remained dark and sinister making Zac wonder what may be hiding in them. Everyone was in a panic, running and shouting. He couldn’t see why.
The only one keeping his head was the Baron, Zac’s master. He stood tall in the middle of the courtyard, eyes glinting in the torchlight. Zac had never known the Baron show any fear, and the great man didn’t now. He dominated the running figures directing them to the main gates, and used his drawn sword to point to the battlements where the archers poised to fire. At the same time, he seemed able to take in every man in the area at a glance. The Baron barked orders, and his men obeyed without question. Zac knew the reason for this was respect rather than fear. Everyone loved their master, and knew how lucky they were to live at Albemerle, until talk of demon attacks in the area had become the main topic of the servant’s quarters. No one had seen any sign of the creatures from hell, but they knew enough to be afraid.
Not wanting to get in the way of the armed soldiers, Zac stayed in the shadows where he could see everything going on around him. The thick stone walls of the mighty castle glowed in the torchlight, the reflections on the leaded windows giving the appearance of the castle being on fire. Zac didn’t think it was, at least not yet. No one was running out of the castle in panic, and he was sure they would be if it was ablaze.
There was no sign of any of the servants, but they had probably been ordered to stay inside. Zac would have been with them, had he not decided to sleep in the stables with the horses. He slept there quite often when the days were warm, and no one had ever forbidden him to do so. In truth, Zac enjoyed sleeping near to the horses more than he did the other boys. He found the sounds and smells of the beasts far preferable to those of some of the other lads in the servant’s quarters. Tubs snored like a pig, and Smithy spent the night letting rip. They were both forever having boots thrown at them, but they just laughed and went back to sleep. No one will be laughing or sleeping tonight, thought Zac.
For all the commotion, Zac couldn’t see any attackers inside the castle walls. No one was fighting, but something had to be happening. He just couldn’t see what. The boy was quite pleased he had decided to be brave and come out of the stable, but that he didn’t have to follow up on his bravery yet.
The men gathered at the inner gates where the Baron was shouting orders to open them. Open them? Archers were calling down to the master, but Zac couldn’t make out what they were saying. Had the outer wall and drawbridge been breached? If it had though, would the Baron be ordering the gates open? Zac would know soon enough, because two men were now on each side of the huge iron bound gates swinging them open.
One horse staggered in on its last legs. The man riding it fell off as soon as the horse, panting and in obvious distress, stopped in the courtyard. The Baron rushed to the fallen man as soldiers steadied the shaking mount, blood flecks foaming on its lips. As if the poor horse knew it had now done its duty, it fell to the ground, blood pouring from one of many gashes in its side and legs. Zac edged closer as the huge gates were swung shut and bolted again, wondering if he could ease the horse’s distress. It was well beyond help. With a swift movement of his sword, the nearest soldier put the poor beast out of its misery. They couldn’t do the same for the man.
The battered soldier lay in Baron Albemerle’s strong arms, trying to speak. Zac heard his master say, “Try to save your breath, my friend, you are too weak.” His eyes full of concern, he wiped blood away from the soldier’s face.
“Too many…” gasped the dying men. “I’m sorry, my Lord. We failed…”
“No,” said Albemerle, his voice full of compassion. “You have never failed me, nor will you ever.”
The man looked relieved in the flickering torchlight, then he coughed blood and gasped his last breath, the Baron still holding him.
“No!” shouted Baron Albemerle to the night air, then bowed his head in grief. Soldiers came to carry the dead man away.
Zac had tears in his eyes too. The servants had heard about other soldiers riding out and never returning, but this was the first time he had seen one die. It was horrible. There was nothing he could do. Looking around, Zac saw the soldiers were returning to their posts. It appeared the commotion was over, for now. The look-outs on the walls must have signalled there was no impending threat. Invaders were not breaking into the castle tonight.
Still clinging hold of the pitchfork, Zac returned to the stable. He didn’t know if anyone had seen him or not. Lying down again, he knew there was no way he could sleep. Even when he closed his eyes all he could see was the soldier’s agonised face. He stared up at the rafters, wishing daylight would come. A few second later, a familiar voice spoke outside the stable. Zac recognised it as Garth, the Baron’s eldest son.
“Things are bad, Morgan. Much worse than we expected.”
Zac listened for Garth to speak again before he rolled and began to edge closer to the wall. From here, the voices were clearer. He leaned towards a crack in the wood to try to see. It didn’t help much, but at least he was now more in earshot.
“What are we going to do, my Lord?” asked Morgan, the Captain of the Guard. “Shall I take a force out myself to search for Aldric?”
“No,” Garth replied. “We have lost too many men already. We can’t afford to lose more. Where in the name of the Fates is Aldric?” Garth sighed. “I fear the worst must have happened. He has never let us down before. Vorac has become too powerful. Mark my words, evil forces are at work here.”
“But could Vorac amass such a force in so few months?” asked Morgan.
“Evil flows from the man. We have known for some time he delves in the ancient Black Arts. He always seemed harmless with his sorcery, little more than a figure to ridicule.” Garth shook his head. “I fear we have been fools, Morgan. He wants power, and will not stop until he has gained it. I would say this to no other man than you, my trusted friend. I fear we may be too late to stop him.”
The captain paced before Garth, his fingers touching the sword strapped to his hip. “But Lord,” he called out, “this can’t be!”
“Hush my friend. We do not wish to alarm too many as yet. Three forces have ridden forth in search of Aldric. One man returned, and maybe he was only allowed back to strike fear in us all. We are alone in this. Vorac is biding his time. His demon led forces have already taken Baldon and Moorhaven. He wants all the land, and he is getting ever closer to his ambition. We are all that stands between him and his goal.”
“But, if we could find Aldric?”
“If, Morgan, if. We have tried, and so far, failed.”
Morgan resumed his pacing. “Perhaps one man alone could get through, my Lord. Maybe I should go myself?”
“No,” Garth replied. “You are too valuable to us here. The men all respect and follow you. I see the sense in what you are saying, though.
Zac continued to watch and listen. Garth rubbed at the stubble on his chin, appearing lost in thought. He then turned back to Morgan. “One man may get through where an army has failed. I’ll bear it in mind, my friend.” He placed his hand on the captain’s broad shoulder. “There is no more to be done tonight. Another day may bring fresh hope. For now, I need to sleep”
“Yes, my Lord.” Morgan turned, and walked away.
Garth stood a moment longer, his eyes glazed as he stared towards where the man had died tonight. “Fresh hope,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head.
From his tone, Zac knew he didn’t mean a word.
The footsteps faded away into the night, and the boy lay listening to the sound of his own heart beating. So it was true. They were all going to die, horribly, at the hands of demons.
Pulling his woollen blanket over his head, he tried to sleep. He listened to the comforting nicker of the horses in the nearby stalls, and his heart ceased to race quite so fast. Daylight finally came, and he hadn’t slept a wink.
End of Chapter One