War was averted. Or so he hoped. As the moon elevated from behind the Great Mountain, a lone horseman in tin-plated armor trotted along the banks of the Paradise River, breathing in damaged rhythms under his mask. Although his rusting sword dangled by his hip, the blade destined to see countless engagements remained untested.
Having wandered for hours along a hillside where the fountains of blood once slumbered, he stopped beside the water’s edge to labor another breath. His Iberian Saddle Horse bowed down to drink from the calmed edge of the rapids, while he, the rider, removed his steel helmet and tossed it to the current. Where he was going, he didn’t need it.
The rider, Dalowin, stepped down from his four-legged accomplice and collapsed along the shore. With his thighs touching the soft ground, he picked a rock out of a shrub and rolled it between his fingers.
The river crashed and bubbled in its flowing fury, yet he stayed close, hoping the anger would quench him. On his own there was nothing he could do short of tossing himself in, but he waited—for an earthquake, maybe—to give him that jarring nudge. Waiting was folly, however. The natural land had showed him no favor, and it would not begin to favor him tonight. He scooted from the riverbank, plunging the stone in his place.
“Do not be afraid,” said a ghostly voice echoing from the water.
Dalowin jumped to his feet. The words vibrated down to the pit of his heart.
His attention darted everywhere; his chest heaved from the shock.
He gazed into the churning cauldron, but he saw and heard nothing. Mist floated up from the surface, spraying his face like spit from a baby. The surrounding field of wild marjoram enveloped his senses with its sweet aroma. Butterflies fluttered without resonance, and he stood there on the shore looking like the fool. His horse glanced up from the river, snorted, then returned to its drink.
“Thank you, Aspyre, for your staunch reassurance,” Dalowin said.
The beast didn’t respond. Dalowin chucked another rock. His heart was now calming.
* * *
The lucid dream had fought with him three separate times: the first, a week before departure while sleeping in his father’s castle; the second, when his army split into three parts at the Hill of Resilience; the third, while resting along the banks of the Paradise River. Each time, the vision had replayed the story picture for picture, engraining him with visions of terror. Though the images were short-lived, they panned out with an orchestral voice so booming that the pieces haunted him in broad daylight.
A castle with four towers stood like a giant at the foot of the hill, with bloody moat on three sides and a mountain on the fourth. A city opened at the base of the drawbridge, surrounding the canal to the edge of the rock. Walls of mortar encased the city, with an inner wall keeping the castle court. Venom covered the strongholds.
Soldiers with crossbows paced the surface of each protective layer. Scores of swordsmen roamed the city streets. Multiple guards stood outside the gates and pikes stabbed downward from the ramparts like wooden icicles.
The son of the duke, regarded among his countrymen as Dalowin the Rabbit, stood on the hill’s peak, surveying the land. Though his army of a hundred horsemen held loyal to him—or to his father, rather—their presence brought him little comfort. Hundreds more were stationed between him and the Throne of Destiny, waiting to knock him off his saddle. The sky moved at the speed of an arrow, but he and his men remained frozen in time.
A man in purple robes materialized a few feet down the slope, stretching his hands toward the kingdom.
“The king of this land has defiled his people,” the prophet said. “He must be dethroned. Go and claim the kingdom for your father and the Lord will bless your people. Do not delay or the city before you shall die.”
Three times Dalowin had wanted to take that first step toward the valley to rush the gates, but three times his courage had failed. With every scuffle of the horse’s hooves, he spun the animal around and charged the opposite hill, fleeing from his own men. And every time he awoke, he lurched into reality with a dry mouth and a shattered will, convincing himself the prophecy was false and the war was not his to fight.
* * *
“Do not be afraid,” the voice of ambience whispered.
Bolting upright, Dalowin stared at the water, hyperventilating through the shallows of his lips. Though the signs continued to elude him, something had chased him. He strained his ears to hear it again. Whitecaps broke less than a meter from his feet and the wind echoed through the reeds. But nature, like an irritating mime, lacked speech. Whatever it was, it hid itself. Taunting him. Scolding him.
Confounded by the problem, he insisted the place was cursed.
Weeks ago, his accompanying cavalry had vanished. By his fault. When the three squads separated atop the Hill of Resilience, he broke rank and dashed for the woods, hoping they had the sense to follow his lead. Without a commander, he was certain—or hopeful—they’d return home. Disbanding them was the only way he knew how to protect them.
In his heart he believed the prophet had fed his father a lie. It was impossible that the kingdom below the Hill could fall before his small army. The castle guard clamped the city with the strength of a thousand elephants. Cowardice was the key to his survival.
For many nights, he had rationalized himself to sleep. A dead man never dethroned a corrupt king. An army never rose from a bloody heap. A sound leader was a wise leader, and a wise leader was a living one. Leading these people away had left him with no consequence.
He hoisted himself over the saddle and clutched his reigns with eagle claws. He had to depart from this land.