They had been walking the horses through the forest for over half a day now, only stopping once to refill their water canteens and break fast. Antonius was finding himself more and more bored with the scenery around him. The trees, flowers and creatures of the wood had held a certain charm to him for a while but he was tiring of the seemingly monotonous landscape. He was not one for the countryside, instead preferring the bustle of a city. If he wanted quiet like this he would be working in his armoury.
They had been following game trails for the last hour, trying to stay on a westerly course as much as they could. Riding in single file was doing nothing to relieve his boredom either and when he had started to sing, Sir Robertson had sharply told him to stop, lest he attract the attention of bandits. He had taken to tinkering with one of his gauntlets, trying to increase the intensity of the magical blasts they produced.
He was muttering some verification enchantments over them, watching the gauntlets aura change colour, when a cry came from Kulan Gath. Antonius looked up to see the man fall from his saddle, his horse dancing a few steps sideways from him. He looked around but could see nothing that could have struck him.
“Bandits,” yelled Sir Whiteman as he wheeled Valinor around and raised his shield just as an arrow struck it. Antonius frantically looked around him and fumbled on the gauntlet he was holding. Sir Robertson had been trapped under some sort of weighted net and was struggling to be free of it. The two squires had drawn their swords but they had nothing to strike at, their assailants were still hidden.
Suddenly a group of men stepped out onto the game trail, seemingly melting out of the greenery around them. They all wore similar clothes, green and brown tunics and leggings, leather boots, and they appeared to have mud covering their faces. And they were all holding longbows, arrows drawn and aimed at all of them
He knew he had to do something so he raised the hand the gauntlet was on and willed the magic to activate. That was how it worked, the magic imbued within the pieces of armour he created, responded solely to him, to his mind. Thought and action were seamlessly one and a magical bolt of energy flew from his hands to strike the ground at the feet of some of the bandits. The ground erupted around them, spraying dirt and rock everywhere.
“The other one is a mage too,” he heard a man shout.
The next thing he felt was a sharp thump to the side of his head and everything went dark.
Daniel watched as the King’s Armourer stirred, a groan of pain coming from him. He had a large bruise above his right temple where the blunt arrow had knocked him unconscious. Daniel had heard the bandits that had attacked them call out that Antonius was a mage after he had unleashed that blast of energy from his gauntlet. Now that had been something, it had sure put the scare into those bastards.
The man struggled to his feet and looked blearily about him. “How you feeling blacksmith?” called Daniel
Antonius looked in Daniel’s direction and shrugged his shoulders. He was obviously still to dizzy to reply. Daniel walked over to him and placing a hand on the man’s broad shoulders, made him sit down. “You need to sit and rest for bit, that was a nasty blow to the head you took,” he advised.
“Where are we?” mumbled Antonius.
“In some holding pen. They eventually got me off Valinor and overwhelmed me, too many to fight at once. Think I injured a few of them though, before I went down,” he replied. “They took my sword though. The others are here too, got roughed up a bit but none as bad as you or the magician”
Daniel looked around at the rest of his party. Sir Robertson was sitting near the door, listening to see if he could hear anything about who it was held them. The two Page Boys were sitting quietly at the far wall. They were both trying their best not to look afraid but Daniel knew from their furtive glances around their cell that they were terrified. Kulan Gath was in the middle of the floor his hands continually feeling at the collar around his neck.
Daniel had seen the like before; the Knights of the Rose even had a few for when they were tasked with bringing down mages or magical enemies. They were known as Mage Leashes. They prevented a mage or magical creature from using their magiks to affect the world around them. Made from one single piece of metal, once they were clasped around a mage’s neck they were impossible to take off unless another mage did so. Trying yourself caused extreme pain as Kulan Gath had experienced when he had attempted after being thrown in here.
There was another one around Antonius’s neck. Daniel was not sure of the device would stop the man using his magical armour but then again it had been taken from him as had his own. They were for now helpless until the bandit leader decided what to do with them.
A hand signal from Stephan caught Daniel’s attention, someone was approaching their prison. He quickly went to the other side of the door, ready to jump whoever entered into the prison when the door opened. He and Stephan may be without weapons but that hardly made a Knight of the Rose helpless. All Knights were trained in a specially devised form of hand to hand combat, one that combined using the weight of their armour and exploiting natural weak spots on the body. Even without the armour to lend the moves weight they were often damaging if not lethal.
A voice called out through the door, “My mage can sense two of you beside the door. Move aside or your own mages will feel the consequences”.
Daniel nodded to Stephan and they both moved to the far side of the wall. He heard the locks being undone and the door opened. Three men entered the hut standing by the open door. Daniel could make out two more men outside, probably their guards.
“Well, well, well,” smiled the man in the centre. He was wearing similar clothes to the men that had ambushed them earlier except there was a small hawk embroidered on the left breast of his forest green jacket. Another hawk was tattooed in dark ink on his left cheek. He looked to Stephan and knew that his fellow Knight was thinking the same thing; they were in the presence of the man known as Hawkeye.
“So what do we have here?” said the man, eyeing each of them carefully, “Two Knights of the Rose, from the armour we removed from you, their squires and two Mages. Now what could you all possibly be doing all the way out here, so close to the Wilds?”
“So this is the infamous Hawkeye?” said Daniel, refusing to let a mere bandit, no matter how renowned, question his motives. He was a Knight of the Rose, supposedly above such suspicion. “To be honest from the stories I expected more”.
The man smiled at him, “Well you cannot believe everything you here now can you? And I am also afraid you are not in the presence of the renowned Hawkeye. That name belongs to my father; you merely have here before you his son, Clive Barton. And now you shall answer some questions of mine? If I suspect a lie you might very well meet my father yet and he is much more ‘persuasive’ than I”. The man made a quiet hand gesture and one of the men with him looked at Kulan Gath. The magician let out a surprised yelp as the man caused him pain through the Mage Leash he was wearing. Clive’s companion was obviously a mage himself and likely the other one was as well. They were being very clear what would happen should Daniel and his companions not comply.
“We will answer what we can, a Knight of the Rose does not speak false,” said Stephan boldly, glaring at Clive. Daniel rolled his eyes, wishing some of the shine of being newly raised would wear off the man soon; he was impossibly chivalrous at times.
“Well speak on then sir Knight,” said Clive in a mocking voice, flourishing an overly elaborate bow to Stephan, “I’m all ears”
“Your father is Devrim Barton, a former Knight of the Rose,” said Kulan suddenly, interrupting them all.
Daniel looked at the man wondering what on Earth he was talking about; there was no Knight of the Rose by that name and certainly no ‘former’ Knight. The only way to leave the Order was death and this man clearly implied his father was still alive.
A deathly silence had settled over Clive though, and all humour had left his face. He was staring intently at Kulan Gath now. “How do you know that name Mage?” he demanded.
“I was there when King Argus banished the man, and at his subsequent divorce from the Order of the Rose. It caused quite a stir at the Kingarth court as I remember,” replied Kulan, grinning nastily at the man.
Clive stared at him in amazement before a dark look settled over him, “I think that perhaps you should meet my father after all”. He gestured to the other man with him, “Inform Hawkeye we have some visitors he might want to meet”.
As they were led from the prison hut Kulan made sure to get a good look around him at the Bandit’s camp. It was far from what he had expected. Rather than the general squalor and filth he associated such places with, the forest camp seemed like a small settlement. Most of the huts were wooden and thatched affairs but here and there more sturdy buildings had been made within the arching roots of the massive oaks surrounding them. Dirt paths were well trodden and the occasional paved pathway to certain building was present. A ringing noise from the edge of the small settlement evidenced a smithy somewhere and picket lines for horses were well organised. It seemed Sir Barton had not left much of his Knighthood behind.
It was mostly men that he seen around the area, though here and there women walked, dressed in the same way as the men and carrying longbows of all things. Likely they were just taking them somewhere; it was not as if a woman could take part in banditry or battle of any kind. Kulan looked then at the man called Clive Barton.
That he was his father’s son was not easy to miss. They had a lot in common, the dark curly hair, sharp darting eyes and a beak of a nose. The young man also had his father’s infuriating manner, a cocky, self-assured, over inflated opinion of himself. Gods, he even swaggered like his father had.
Kulan was interested in seeing the man he had once known, back in the days when he had served as Elehan’s father magician. It had not been hard to piece together the identity of the man called Hawkeye. The name Barton and widespread stories of a bandit with uncanny skill with a bow could only mean one person. As a Knight of the Rose the man had been renowned for his skill with the bow, there was no one better. Kulan had suspected there was something magical, or even unnatural about the man, but had never been able to test his theory.
He also remembered the day the man was exiled from Arthadia. He wondered how well Devrim remembered it. They were being led to the only structure in the camp that was built with stone. It looked to be some sort of lodge house and Kulan could see on the door was the symbol of House Barton, a hawk with its wings raised and between its wings a blazing sun. The hawk matched the tattoo on Clive’s face.
Clive knocked on the door and it was opened from inside by another bandit. They were ushered inside to a gloomy room that seemed to be the entire length of the structure. Kulan noted a couple of rooms at one end of the building but they must have been small given the room they were in now. Looking around he saw the man they were brought to see.
Age had not been as kind to Devrim Barton as it had to Kulan, but then again the man did not have access to the knowledge that made that so. He was a white haired, old man now though he still held that sharp look in his eyes and he started from his chair as they rested upon Kulan. He lowered himself down into the high backed wooden chair that sat near a large fireplace, dead at this time of the day.
“Bring them here,” he demanded, his gaze never leaving Kulan Gath. The magician matched his gaze as they approached, watched by numerous guards, a few with drawn bows. “It is you mage, I had never thought to see you again,” stated the old man.
“Nor I you, Sir Barton,” replied Kulan, using the man’s old title.
Hawkeye frowned at the mage’s poorly hidden slight, and instead looked over the rest of the group. “I see you still have cause to trouble the Order then?” he eventually said.
Kulan’s smiled faded and he fixed Hawkeye with a stare, but it went unnoticed. The man was frowning at Sir Robertson. “This one surely cannot be Raised to the Rose yet, he is barely old enough”.
Stephan eyes went wide at this and he began to splutter in anger until Daniel laid a hand on his shoulder. “He is indeed Lord Hawkeye,” said the Knight, “He shows great skill and has passed the tests required, he is the youngest Knight of the Rose in all our records”.
“As you say,” replied Hawkeye, though he was obviously still not completely convinced. “And I am not a Lord, merely Hawkeye,” he added. “Now maybe you can explain to me why you travel with this man as your companion,” he said pointing at Kulan.
Kulan interrupted before Sir Whiteman could reply, “Sill holding a grudge after all these years Devrim? I have to say that I thought you would have left it behind you years ago”.
“I will never forget Mage,” spat the man, glaring furiously at Kulan. “Your counsel would have led to the death of many of the Order. I stand by what I did, and I will until the day I die”.
“Of course you will, as cowards tend to defend their reasons for not fighting you will so defend your own. As it happens, my counsel that day led to a victory that day, one that would have failed if not for the Order defying your so called wisdom,” replied Kulan, his voice getting sharper.
“I should strike your head from your shoulders to stop the venom you spew Kulan,” shouted Hawkeye, obviously getting quite worked up.
Clive suddenly appeared at his father’s side and placing a hand on his shoulder bent to speak to him, “Please Father, do not upset yourself so, the cleric said you must not exert yourself. Now tell me what does this man speak of, I know you told me you wanted never to speak on it again but it seems your past has come back to face you once more”.
Hawkeye sighed and visibly slumped at his son’s words. “As you wish, no doubt these two Knights will want to hear the story as well”. He rolled his shoulders as is preparing himself for something unpleasant. “As you know I was once a Knight of the Rose, a Captain actually”.
“Impossible,” said Sir Robertson suddenly, “I have studied the entire history of the Order of the Rose and not a single mention of you is made”
“That is because I was expunged from the records young Knight,” said Hawkeye sadly. “Arthadia was in the middle of a border dispute with Delotra when I was made Captain. I was charged with advising King Argus on tactics, he was quite young then and headstrong, Elehan was yet to be born”.
“We were in the middle of a war council meeting, discussing the possibility of a large push that had the potential to break the Delotran forces,” interrupted Kulan, his voice quiet as if he were casting around for the memories, like they had been long stored away and were now unfamiliar to him. “I was its main proponent,” he finished, looking at Hawkeye to continue.
“And I was against it,” continued Hawkeye, anger heating his voice again, “That man’s plans were to use the Knights of the Rose in such a way that many of us would have been slaughtered. As I said, King Argus was headstrong and wanted to take action, to prove himself as a worthy leader for Arthadia. I do not think he fully realised what the tactic would have cost the Order. I argued against it and eventually refused to let the Order take part in the battle. For this I was exiled,” he finished his voice quiet with sadness again.
“And the Order divorced you for your cowardice,” finished Kulan, a nasty, pleased look on his face.
“And I was right was I not Mage?” replied the old man, “Hundreds of Knights died following your foolish plans”.
“Died for Arthadia, we won that battle and forced a treaty with Delotra, one that still holds today,” replied Kulan furiously.
“Died for a strip of land all but useless,” said Hawkeye quietly. Kulan did not answer him; the old man was even more sentimental in his old age than he had been back there. What if men had to be sacrificed to achieve a goal in war, was that not the purpose of a soldier?
“Since then I wandered to the outer reaches of Arthadia, removing myself from the doings of the Kingdom. I exist as a bandit now, providing and caring for the little community I have created here,” finished Hawkeye. “And now an explanation is required from you. What brings your group into the Wilds? If it is to come for me then I am afraid you have failed?” he asked.
“Do not be so full of yourself old man…” Kulan started before a shout startled him.
“Be quiet Mage, I have heard enough from you and about you this day,” shouted Sir Whiteman. Kulan glared at him suddenly itching for his Mage Leash to be removed. He would incinerate the Knight where he stood, he would… he took a deep breath and calmed himself. Let this play out as it will he thought, they were not in any real danger now.
“We are charged with a Quest Hawkeye, by King Elehan. The Magician has had a vision, one of the destruction of Arthadia by demonic forces, one that can only be prevented by beseeching aid from the Elder Gods. We journey into the Wilds to find a temple of the Lost Gods to do so,” explained the Knight.
“I see, more Knights of the Rose wrapped in your ridiculous schemes,” sighed Hawkeye, looking at Kulan.
“If only it were Devrim, if only it were,” said Kulan quietly.
Hawkeye eyed him questioningly, as if surprised by the sincerity in Kulan’s voice. “A Knight of the Rose speaks no untruth, release them from their bonds and give them back their weapons. Let this man lead them to their destruction if they wish,” ordered the old man. At his word men stepped forward carrying the companion’s equipment.
Kulan waited impatiently as a young mage undid the magic that held his collar closed, one that despite his far superior power he could not undo himself. As it came free his eyes widened in fear and he gasped. “Gods no!” he yelled, “They send hell-spawn for us, they are upon us”.