Early the next morning when Shane awoke the cloud cover was still overhead. At least the snow had stopped falling and the wind had blown itself out. It was still cold being so early, so he built his little fire back up from the smoldering cinders and fixed porridge. A nice bit of cured bacon that he wedged between two cold biscuits, and cup of hot tea made it a fine little breakfast to travel on. “The Moon will be full this evening” he said to the stallion.
Dark Star slowly nodded his head, and snorted loudly in agreement. Nobody had to explain to him what that portended. “We’ll be safe down there in the timber as long as we don’t show ourselves or make any light. Don’t you think so star?” Shane asked, the fear and hope in his voice made it rise an octave higher than normal. The brave stallion did not show the fear he held deep in his heart for the dragon could not agree more heartily. They would be safe indeed.
Dark Star had gone out during the night to determine the whereabouts of the outlaws, Brill, and Crandall. He followed their trail by the foot prints in the snow. To the mouth of Morloch’s cave and was immediately assaulted by the unmistakable stench of fire and brimstone.
Two of the primary ingredients necessary for making dragon fire. The key element was being a dragon. The stench of death that lay heavy within the cave told the horse the rest of the outlaw’s tale. They had unknowingly chosen to take shelter from the storm in the lair of the horse thieving man eater, Morlock the Terrible. They had met their fates in the form of the old dragon himself.
Without any further ado, Dark Star backed away from the cave entrance quickly, but quietly. Being careful lest he should arouse the evil old worm and share their fate on his plate. The old warhorse gave them no more thought save that it couldn’t have happened to two more deserving fellows than Brill and Crandall.
He couldn’t imagine how anyone would ever miss them, or that anybody would ever even think to come looking for them on the remote summit of Mount Thunder. Unless of course it was the local Sheriff, and a lynch mob or two.
Shane quickly finished his breakfast so he could brush Star, and the sisters down real good before he broke camp. He was eager to get an early start down the mountain. He was anxious to get down to the tree line where the horses could get grass and water. They’d had to go most of the previous day and night without either one. The rarefied mountain air was cold and brisk, but the wind was almost still as they picked their way slowly downhill.
The heavy white clouds over their heads soon gave way to blue skies and warm sunshine. By the time they reach the timberline again Shane had been forced to take off most of his heavy wool garments. Well before the noon hour arrived they came to a fertile glen that had an over abundance of grass growing there amidst the trees and shrubs. Shane stopped there for lunch to allow the horses to graze before they made their way down to the valley floor. They made excellent time due to the fact they were traveling down hill the whole way.
The valley between the mountains before them was many miles wide. That meant that they would have a nice gentle climb up into the foothills of the mountain ahead. Shane chose a campsite on the Northern side of a river that was shallow, but wide. he crossed first in case it rained during the night and kept them from crossing in the morning. That’s what he told Star anyway.
They were camped in a tiny clearing that had standing hay in it for the horses to feed on and they took right to it. Shane cooked his supper before the had sun fully set in the West. He then extinguished the little campfire and covered it completely with dirt. This in anticipation of the full moon when Morlock the Terrible would be on the prowl.
“He isn’t going to get us Star,” Shane said bravely. A lot more so than he actually felt just then. Even so, he believed they were safe enough hidden there in the darkness beneath the trees. To help ease Shane’s obvious anxiety, Dark Star agreed heartily with him. Secretly, he had his own doubts, but he would never allow any kind of fear to show in front of the boy. Night fell and they were lolling around doing nothing, when suddenly all three horses picked up their heads and perked up their ears. They were focused on a sound that was clearly well beyond the range of Shane’s hearing.
“What is it Star, what do you hear? Is it Morlock, is he coming?” He asked the stallion who shook his head, no, before he went back to listening to the keen wailing on the wind. “Whatever it is you hear, does it sound dangerous?” Sean scarcely more than whispered. But Star only snorted impatiently and returned to listening. He couldn’t tell what it was. Then with no more than a whinny, Star took off into the night at a dead run headed Southwest toward the river. All Shane could do was sit there in the dark and wait for the stallion to return. Hopefully he would find out what the big mystery was all about then. He didn’t have to wait more than an hour before Star returned and the big mystery was indeed finally cleared up.
When Dark Star finally did return, Shane was astonished to see three donkeys walking behind him, single-file. All three of the small, gray donkeys were trailing picket ropes from their halters, and they look like they had spent the night running blindly through dense underbrush with the devil hot on their heels. From what they told Dark Star when he found them hopelessly tangled up in thorn bushes where they’d been snared by their picket ropes that’s pretty much what happened.
After Star freed them by chewing through their ropes, the donkeys told Star how they’d come into the sad state of affairs he’d found them in from start to finish. They were able to fill the blanks in for him as to the fate of their last owners. Two brutish men whom they only described as ‘two smelly, nasty human beings.’ Star easily deduced that the two smelly, nasty humans could be none other than Brill and Crandall. They told Star about the white thunderstorm they’d been in on top of Mount Thunder. He was already familiar with that part, of course, and they told him how the smelly humans tried to drag them into Morloch’s cave where they could smell the overpowering stench of death emanating from somewhere deep inside the mountain, and how they’d refused to go in.
From their story, Dark Star was able to deduce they had been with Brill and Crandall atop Mount Thunder the night before. At times all three of the donkeys were trying to tell the story at once. They spoke animatedly of how they had been able to smell Morloch whose scent all horses learn to recognize very early on in their lives. They spoke in hushed tones about the terrible roar, and the wall of flames that had erupted from the mouth of the cave shortly after the two smelly humans had gone inside.
The remainder of their story was mainly about how they had run helter-skelter down the mountainside in the dark after they had broken their picket ropes. They’d gotten lost in the dense undergrowth on the valley floor and subsequently became hopelessly entangled in the thorn bush where they stayed until Star found. The rest of the story we all know as did the black stallion.
They said their names were Racer, Packer, and Bill but since all donkeys look nearly identical, Star had no idea which one was which so he decided to call all three of them Bill for the sake of convenience. The three were not closely related like Jenny and Vanna who were sisters. Donkeys have a peculiar way of tracing their family ties that defy human comprehension. Suffice it to say that Racer was Bill’s Uncle, Bill was Packers Niece (twice removed), and Packer was Racers grandfather on his mother’s side and leave it at that since it really makes no difference anyway.
When Star return to camp leading the three donkeys, Shane was flabbergasted. “More animals!? He cried. “I swear, you must be a horse thief, Star.” Shane admonished the old warhorse, but Star denied all charges with a shake of his great head until Shane agreed to let the donkeys stay.
“But only until we can find their real owners.” Shane warned the stallion. Star tossed his head in vigorous agreement. “And don’t go ‘finding’ any more horses for the duration of this journey, okay?” He pleaded, but the stallion chose to pretend he hadn’t heard a word of it. He walked off to rejoin the donkeys and lead them to the meadow where they could feed. They hadn’t eaten during the long hours spent climbing Mount Thunder, nor at any time since they had escaped from Brill and Crandall. Shane set up late into the night keeping a wary eye on the full moon as it crossed the Heavens overhead. He was looking for any signs of the dragon, but since the Morlock family had already been well fed by the two plump turkeys that had conveniently perched themselves upon their very doorstep, there was no reason for the evil old worm to leave the snug confines of his lair. Morloch The Terrible was nowhere to be seen that night.
As soon as he awoke the next morning Shane had a light breakfast, and saddled the horses. Moving quickly because he wanted to make up some of the time they had lost due to him sleeping in that day. He’d stayed awake most of the night watching the sky for Morlock, and had overslept.
“Having a blanket pulled over my head so I couldn’t tell the sun was up didn’t help anything either, STAR!” Shane said, accusingly. Dark Star gave him an almost credible version of the classic who, me look. A look perfected by small children and other miscreants of that nature over many centuries.
“Yeah you,” Shane growled your guilty face doesn’t keep your secrets very well, Star. “With a long face like that I’d say your days as an actor and as a criminal are numbered at best. Shane thought the stallion was going to continue following the overland route through the mountains, but when he set his face to climb the next mountain, The stallion surprised him and took them Eastward along the riverbank.
“Sometimes I wish you could talk, Star so you could tell me what the devil you are thinking.” Shane told the horse. “At least then I would not feel like a will-of-the-wisp caught up in a whirlwind all the time.” Dark Star merely looked back at him with one coal black eye but said not a single word. A short knicker was all he got. The equestrian equivalent of a chuckle.
Shane discovered the reason for the change of direction just after taking a break for lunch. Shane had decided to unsaddle Star and the sisters and let them have a roll in the grass. He wanted to give them some time to splash around in the river and wash the accumulated sweat and dirt from their hides. Shane brushed them down and let them dry in the warm sunshine before re-saddling them and resuming the journey. Around 2:30 that afternoon they emerged from the thick forest and found themselves back on the road. The same one they had left ten days before on account of Brill and Crandall.
“Ah, now I see said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw.” Shane quipped as the light of comprehension dawned on his brain. Star snorted loudly, otherwise he said nothing more concerning his opinion on that subject. The little party traveled North on the highway for the remainder of the day, and by sunset they were high above the foothills of Mount Baldy. So named because it’s treeless domed peak resembled the rounded pate of a bald man. Normally, Shane would have stopped much sooner, but with six grazing animals to feed in his little troupe he was forced to find a spot with grass and water. He figured it would mean he’d have to spend another night without a fire, but the moon would still be full, and bright enough to see by. It wasn’t cold so Shane didn’t mind the thought of a cold camp. He was dog tired so he would just go to bed early.
And so on they went searching for a meadow close-by the roadside. It was just past sunset when Shane spied a light flickering through the trees just ahead of them. Hey, Star, he said to the horse, “it looks like we might have some company tonight. If that’s not those two clowns, Brill and Crandall that is. He added darkly. The stallion shook his black mane as if to say he rather doubted it.
“Oh.” Said Shane who kind of got the message. “I sure hope we don’t run into those two characters again don’t you?” He asked and the black stallion had to agree on principle if nothing else. When they got to the next turn in the road the thick forest opened out on both sides of the roadway where it ran through a large, grassy meadow. A burbling stream ran through it and cross the road on its way down the mountain.
In the valley it would eventually join the river they had camped beside that very morning. The campfire Shane had seen flickering through the trees was clearly visible now, being so close to the road. Shane saw that the fire was built on the closer bank of the stream itself. In the soft light of the setting sun, the boy could see that there were two men seated beside the fire. As he got closer he saw to his alarm that both of the men were wearing the long brown robes of Friars, and both of them had large wooden crosses hung around their necks. At first glance Shane thought they were Brill and Crandall and he pulled up sharply on Star’s reins. “Whoa, boy.” He whispered. “That is Brill and Crandall there! Look, Star!” He whispered softly in the stallions ear, but the war horse snickered and began walking towards the two men unbiddden. The northeasterly wind was blowing their scent directly into Dark Star’s keen nostrils. Given his first-hand knowledge of Brill, and Crandall’s final moments on Earth, and the fact he knew that they were currently touring the digestive system of one very nasty old dragon it meant that the two men before them were definitely not the same malodorous pair of miscreants as before. The men were complete strangers to his eyes. Shane tried to get the horse to stop but I’m sure you can imagine how that turned out. When the stallion got it into his mind to do something he did it regardless of what anyone thought about it. The two strangers had long-since heard them coming. As if they could help but hear 24 hooves striking the road at the same time even from a mile away. They’d both risen from the stones upon which they were seated o see who was coming up the road at such a late hour.
“Hello there strangers!” One of the men called out to Shane, who could tell by then that the men were definitely not Brill and Crandall.
“Hello yourselves strangers, but there is only one stranger here I’m afraid.” Shane replied.
“Well, stranger, you can’t ride all night long you know. Come down from there and share our fire with us friend.” The other man said, warmly.
“Thank you, sir, I believe I will,” Shane said, returning the smiles and warmth in equal measure. Just then, Bill, the real, Bill not Bill the second, or Bill the Third, began braying quite loudly at the rear of the little procession. He’d recognized the voice of his master, Brother Leo.
“I declare, that surely does sound like the voice of old Bill himself doesn’t it, Brother George?” Brother Leo asked his companion.
“Aye, and for certain it does at that, Brother Leo.” Brother George admitted with no little astonishment.
“I think I would know the sound of my own ass after all these years, wouldn’t you Brother George?” Brother Leo asked Brother George who confessed that, “one might certainly hope so,” as Shane and his long line of wayward livestock came to a halt right in front of them. Brother Leo rushed over to the little gray donkey named Bill and looked at him for a moment in the Silvery moonlight. His features were simultaneously hidden and highlighted by the golden glow of the light of the campfire. Suddenly he threw his arms around the little donkey’s neck and began shouting tearfully. “Bill! You’ve come back to us! It’s a miracle! The Lord be praised our Bill has come back to us! And look here, Brother George, there’s Racer and now here’s Packer too!” he exclaimed with great wonder resonating in his voice.
“I’m guessing those two know each other already, Star.” Sean whispered to the black stallion who tossed his head in agreement. Then is when it all began coming back to Shane, and he recalled the story Brill had related to him the night before just before Shane put the monkey spell on him and let him go. He hadn’t believed even half of what the thief had told him, but now here was living proof that at least some of the story had been truthful.
Before Shane could dismount, Brother Leo walked up to him leading Bill the Donkey. Pray thee tell us lad” he asked, looking up into , Shane’s eyes with unhidden suspicion. “How, and where did you come into the position of these three donkeys?”
“To tell you the truth I didn’t really.” Shane replied. “It was Star here who found them somewhere down in the valley below. He found them somewhere last night but under what circumstances I could not imagine, for I honestly don’t know. All I really do know about them is what the man who tried to rob and murder me on top of Mount Thunder told me about inheriting three donkeys from two Friars in Gallows Gap. Wherever that is,” Shane explained.
“The two men said they inherited them did they? Brother Leo snorted derisively. Aye, and sure enough they stole them from us is the truth of that matter, lad.” Brother George told Shane.
“Yes, well that’s about what I figured the truth of it was where those two men were concerned. Shane assured the monks.
“Aye, tis sooth,” Brother George stated firmly. “Well then lad, light down from your saddle and we’ll help you get the livestock settled in for the night. Then you can join us by the fire for some freshly-caught and roasted Speckled Trout on a stick.” Brother Leo told Shane with a lopsided grin.
“Speckled trout on a stick?” Shane wondered aloud.
“Yes, it’s all we have to cook with since those men stole everything we had.” Brother Leo explained.
“I see,” said Shane as he dismounted and begin removing Star’s saddle. Brothers Leo and George helped by unburdening Vanna and Jenny of their pack saddles. In short order, Star lead his loyal following out into the meadow for some long overdue grazing In the standing hay there. Meanwhile the humans sat down at the campfire to graze on some piping hot Speckled Trout-on-a-stick.
“My this is pretty tasty,” Shane said after testing his portion. “I’ve eaten nothing but trail rations ever since I left the Pig and Whistle Inn back in Northam.”
“Aye, did you hear that then, brother Leo? It seems that your opinion of my culinary skills are not shared by our young benefactor here,” brother George stated with a hearty chuckle.
“Sure, and that can only be because he has yet to taste your beastly rutabaga stew yet, brother George,” Brother Leo assured him before they all shared a rollicking laugh at the cook’s expense.
Eventually the conversation turned, as it was bound to sooner or later, to Brill, and Crandall, and how they had each come upon the grave misfortune of having met them. First the brothers listened in rapt attention, as only a monk can, while Shane told them about his journey. Beginning with his trip to the Mayre Woods and his meeting with the wizard, Choralys the White. He wrapped up his long tale with an account of the eleven days he’d just spent in the backcountry. A tale that began with the harrowing climb out of Spirit Horse canyon. He concluded with the telling of the violent white thunderstorm and his close encounter with Brill, and Crandall on the summit of Mount Thunder.
Shane even pulled out the broadsword Crandall had left behind after Dark Star had knocked backward him into the fire. He showed them the shattered remains of Brill’s sword as well. The two Friars wanted to know what had destroyed the sword so devastatingly, but since Shane had not seen the bolt of lightning that struck the Wizards old staff,, the best he could do was guess.
“Maybe it was forged from cheap steel or something. I really don’t have any idea what happened to it,” he confessed.
Next, it was brother George and Leo’s turn to relate how they had encountered the two Highwaymen. Starting from where they had been riding South through the narrow confines of Gallows Gap when the two men had literally fallen out of the sky and landed in the mud at their feet. From that point on the telling got a bit whimsical. The three travel-weary sojourners collapsed on the ground shaking all over from unstoppable fits of laughter when Brother Leo told Shane how they had thought the robbers were possessed by evil spirits and how they had made Holy mud with which to dispossess them.
By the time Brother George got to the part where Brill had tripped over his own buckler and fell face-down in the mud, the three of them were laughing so hard that the horses stopped grazing and stared at them like they had lost their minds. The only one of the animals that understood the humans was of course Dark Star, and he translated their stories into Equestrus. As the stallion related the human’s stories they listened with ears perked up in rapt attention.
“When you found our asses you didn’t also find any of the packs that were with them did you, my son?” Brother Leo asked when all tales of the now deceased highwaymen they’d all had the great misfortune to encounter were exhausted.
“No I wasn’t there when Star found them so I couldn’t tell you where he found them or if they had pack saddles when he did.” Shane said. “I don’t know if they escaped from Brill and Crandall on top of Mount Thunder, or if they escaped down in the valley. But, I do know that Star stole your donkeys away from them. We were on our way to a monastery in Branstead which is south of Shropshire, but we took a notion in our heads to come back this way looking for our asses and our belongings.” Brother Leo explained. Well at least we got our asses back anyway. Brother George sighed. “Aye, Brother George,” Brother Leo agreed. “We shall just have to trust in the good Lord to provide us with our sustenance and shelter until we get to the monastery then won’t we? He added.
“Aye,” Brother George agreed.
“No, I think not.” Shane chimed in suddenly as an idea occurred to him. What do you mean my son? Brother Leo and George asked, puzzled by Shane’s unclear meaning.
“Do you mean that the Lord will not provide for us?”
No, it’s not that at all, brother George.” Shane replied. “In fact, I believe that the Lord has already provided for you. You see, when Brill and Crandall left Northam they packed enough food to hold them over for a month or more.”
“Is that right?” Brother Leo asked thoughtfully.
“Yes,” Shane assured him. “I figure since they took all of your things and since I don’t need them I think you should take the mules and their packs and do with them as you will.”
” Are you serious, my son?”
“Very much so,” Shane assured him.
” Why God bless you my son, you are a true Saint!” Brother George exclaimed.
Aye, verily so! Brother Leo agreed. Verily so.
That being decided, Shane broke into the stores of the pack saddles and made tea for all of them in his tiny copper kettle. They sat up all night talking and laughing as the full moon sailed across the sky above.
Shane was dog tired and barely conscious near the end, but it had been two and a half weeks since he had spoken to another human being. He forced his eyelids to stay open well into the wee hours of the morning before they finally collapsed under their own weight. He nearly fell backward off of his rock from having fallen sound asleep so many times. All three men slept very late the next morning so it was closer to noon when Shane opened his eyes and found himself staring up at the underside of his own blanket.
“One of these days horse! One of these days,” He said to no one at all. But of course, he of the long black ears oh-so-keen was well within ear radar distance, and he gave Shane a short horsey laugh to let the boy know he’d heard him.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t call him a stupid horse this time,” Shane thought to himself. He’d already had more than his fill of being tossed into ice-cold creeks while he was sleeping. He was much too sound of a sleeper to have any chance of escaping the stallions wrath. He knew he would have to be careful of what he said, and how he said it in the future. Shane decided to lay there a while longer underneath the blanket with his eyes closed. That is, until he heard the heavy hoof falls of a big horse coming directly toward him. They stopped next to the palette where Shane lay.
“Go away star,” Shane muttered sleepily. He was beginning to contemplate going back to sleep, and perhaps even spending the whole day there fishing for speckled trout in the stream.
“Sorry, but, Shane doesn’t live here anymore, go away and try again tomorrow please. Thank you,” He said to the stallion he knew was standing directly over him. Of course Star had no intentions of going away, and trying again tomorrow.
Shane felt something nuzzling at his stomach and laughed out loud as he touched upon a ticklish spot. Stop it, you crazy horse!” He laughed. Then star took Shane’s his blanket between his teeth and yanked it off of him. Shane tried to hold onto the blanket but the thick ropy muscles of the big warhorses neck were nearly equal to the strength of Shane’s entire body combined.
“Ha ha!” Shane could hear, Brother George laughing at him. “Verily, your trusty steed thinks thee a slugabed, my son.” he observed as Dark star easily won the lopsided tug-of-war match and stripped Shane of his blanket.
“Aye, Brother George!” Shane laughed. If I want to rise early, he covers up my head with the blanket so I cannot see the sun come up. But if I wish to sleep in, he comes along and takes it from me.”
“Tis but as well that we should arise now, lad, for I see Brother Leo returning from his foraging expedition and it appears to mine eyes as though he had success finding our breakfast.” Shane set up in his palette lazily rubbing the sluggishness from his brain, and the lingering remnants of sleep from his eyes.
“I see him brother George,” Shane said, “it looks like he found a lot of food too, whatever it might be.”
Meanwhile, Brother George had set to coaxing the fire back to life. To the sassy black stallion standing beside him with his blanket still in his teeth Shane said, menacingly, “I just hope you’re aware that this my friend means war?”
To which the war horse tossed his great head up and down vigorously causing his coal black mane to fly around along with Shane’s flailing blanket.
“Hey! You give me back my blanket!” Shane cried as he watched his blanket getting horse slobber all over it.
Dark Star whinnied, and tossed his head one last time before he let go of the blanket. It flew up like a magic carpet and then down it came settling over Shane’s head. It made him look like a ghost that had lost its sheet and been forced to haunt the meadow under an old saddle blanket.
“Oh yeah,” Shane said from beneath the blanket. “You had better believe that this means war indeed, Mister Dark Star.
The sound of the stallion prancing away and whinnying that all-too-familiar horse laugh rang defiantly in his ears as the stallion tried it away to rejoin the rest of the herd animals.
When Brother Leo returned to camp, Shane, and Brother George discovered he was carrying a big bunch of juicy ripe blueberries basketed in the folds of his robe. They were ripe and bursting with flavor.
“By the Lord, Brother Leo!” Brother George exclaimed. “Pray tell, where did you find these wonderful blueberries?”
“Seek and ye shall find, Brother George,” Brother Leo said cryptically, “seek and ye shall find.”
“Verily so Brother,” Shane agreed while brother George made it unanimous. The three men feasted on biscuits with honey butter and fresh blueberries, and Shane added some smoked bacon from his own meager food stores.
When they had eaten their fill, Brother Leo recited passages from the Bible that he had memorized. By the time Shane got back on his feet and took a bath in the cold mountain stream it was 2:30 in the afternoon. He decided along with, Brothers George, and Leo to stay there in the roadside meadow and rest for the remainder of the day.
That night was spent quite pleasantly in good company, and the following sunrise saw Shane and the Friars parting company to go their separate ways. They parted quickly with many prayers, and fond fare thee well wishes.
“It looks like it’s just you and me again now Star,” Shane told the warhorse.
Going the opposite direction, Brother George suddenly turned to his companion and said, “I could be wrong, Brother Leo, but methinks both of these mules are in a family way.”
“Aye,” Brother George said as they rode South. “I believe thou art rightly spoken, Brother Leo.”
Vanna and Jenny already knew it, of course. Both mules threw occasional glasses back along their trail at the now receding figure of the handsome black stallion. They watched him as best they could until the horse and rider were finally lost from their sight.
It took five more days of steady traveling before Shane and Dark Star finally descended the northern slope of the Thieron mountains on the 21st day of August. After two and a half weeks of climbing up and over the high reaches of that great mountain range.
That evening Shane rode into a tiny Hamlet called Vinton where he discovered that they had a very fine inn that featured hot baths in each room, and the stables were almost comfortable enough for the riders to lodge in. The place was called the Dewcome Inn, and they made such a complete fuss over Shane and Dark Star that, Shane told the Innkeeper, a short round jolly old soul named, Cerrol, that he’d decided to stay an extra day to rest up himself and his horse. Star had done all of the hard work carrying him safely over the treacherous mountain passes.
Two days later, on the morning of the 23rd, Shane ate a hearty breakfast in the cozy dining room, and after purchasing supplies he settled his bill, saddled Dark Star and they continued north toward Darvonshire. That night they made camp in a wooded spot near the roadway. Shane set up camp and fixed himself a hot meal complete with tea for dinner, then he took out his copy of The Apprentices Handbook Volume 1 and read some of it by firelight before he went to bed.
Shane was just putting the book back into his saddlebags when Dark Star’s head rose from the clover he was grazing on and he snorted loudly in alarm.
“What is it, Star?” Shane asked so quietly that only the horse could hear him. “What do you hear? Is there someone coming?” To the last question the warhorse nodded his head.
No sooner had he confirmed it than Shane heard the tramping of heavy booted feet approaching him. Suddenly a deep bass voice called out from the darkness,
“Hello there at the fire!” Before he could reply a literal giant of a man stepped into the light of the tiny campfire with the biggest hat held in the biggest hands, and he wore the biggest smile on the biggest face Shane had ever seen in his entire 13 years on the planet Earth.
The giant had a great unruly shock of red hair growing wild atop his massive head, and matching red beetle eyebrows. A massive red mustache covered his upper lip all the way down to his chin where he was successfully growing a very long, shaggy red beard. He was dressed quite curiously in an outfit comprised entirely of animal furs that were mainly wolf hides by the looks of them. On the Giants back there was slung a great crossbow that looked to be exceptionally lethal by dint of its size alone. The bolt was the size of a Roman spear, and it could easily take down even the largest grizzly bear.
“Hello there, lad!” The red bearded giant hailed from the edge of the firelight where he stood. “Have ye got room for one more travel weary soul at your fire there my friend?” Shane was too stunned by the sudden appearance of the giant to properly process the information in his brain at first but then instincts took over. When a giant approaches you with a smile on his face do as the Romans do. Smile back at him and make him feel at home. The man’s voice, although it was deep and rough, sounded so good-natured that in spite of his initial weariness Shane heard himself saying to the big man, “Sure we do. Come on over and pull up a rock.” He said, idicating a small stone beside the fire.
“Ho ho ho!” The giant laughed, “I’m afraid my tender backside prefers the softer cushion of good old Mother Earth to a hard stone seat my young friend but thank you just the same. He added as he sat down upon the grass on the other side of the fire. He took off the heavy pack that he was carrying and laid it on the ground beside himself. “Ah! He sighed long, and loud as his big feet were relieved of their enormous burden. “My poor dogs have really taken a beating today I can tell you lad.” The giant laughed as he massaged his feet through the leather of his heavy boots.
“Why don’t you take your boots off then?” Shane wondered aloud.
“If I did that then my poor feet would swell up so big that I not be able to get my boots back on again,” the red giant explained.
“Oh, I see,” Shane said not at all sure that he did. He’d long since grown accustomed to riding the horse and so did not have such problems as sore feet at the end of the day. He only had a sore backside from the long hours that he spent in Dark Star’s saddle.
“Can I offer you something to eat mister, uh, what do I call you?”
” My friends call me Tim,” the giant said, “And no, thank you, lad I have my own supply of grub with me.” As though to prove it, the giant pulled a full leg of lamb from the pack and held it over the campfire for several minutes to warm it up before he attacked it like a starving bear. Which, Shane noted with no small amusement, he resembled very closely. Shane said very little, but he watched in fascination while the big man devoured the entire leg of mutton clean down to the bone. Then he sucked the marrow from it for good measure. Then he tossed the clean white bone over his shoulder where it landed far back in the woods behind him. “That’s for the Wolves to gnaw on lad,” he said with a laugh. “So lad,” he asked Sane next, “what brings you to such a lonely, far away spot as this?”
“I’m traveling to the home of my new master in Darvonshire where I will serve him as his Apprentice for a term of four years.” Shane replied.
“As his Apprentice, doing what, lad? As a knight’s Squire, a blacksmith, a farrier? The giant asked. No sir as a wizard. Shane replied. Tim’s bushy red eyebrows raised to their full height in wide-eyed wonder at the boys statement.
“Is that a fact, lad?” He asked quietly. “Is that the reason you’re carrying that staff there? He said indicating the staff lying beside Dark Star’s saddle.
“Sort of,” Shane replied. It once belonged to a wizard I once knew briefly named, Choralys The White.”
“You say you got it from the wizard Choralys, lad?”
“Yes, sir, that’s the one.”
“I knew Choralys from a time that was long ago and far, far away. How is it that you are carrying his staff now?” The red giant asked, leaning forward to hear the answer better.
“I found it near the site of his tomb, sir.” Shane replied gravely.
“His tomb you say?
“Yes, sir. He’s somehow caused a great and terrible blast that destroyed his home and his lab. The blast sealed it up forever inside the cave.”
“I see,” the Giant said, forlornly. “Indeed that is a shame, indeed it is, lad.” the Giant whispered softly as he bowed his head for a moment. With a great sigh he straightened up and pulled a great leather wine flask from his backpack. “He was a wise man and a great warrior, lad,” he said as he uncorked the wine skin. “Come now,” the big man said, “let us share a toast to the memory of that great wizard, Choralys the White.” That said the Giant took the wineskin in both hands and put it to his lips. He took a long great draft from its contents before he lowered it again. A satisfied sigh whistled gently through his lips. “Here you are then lad,” big Tim said recapping the wineskin and tossing it across the fire to Shane.
Sean put up his hands to catch the wineskin flying at his face, and he caught it. But the prodigious weight of the giant wineskin hit him in the chest like a ton of bricks and sent him flying head over heels. He flew off of his rock seat and landed in the tall grass behind it. This, very much to the amusement of both the giant and the black stallion who had joined him in fits of raucous laughter. Shane’s somewhat strained voice came weekly back from somewhere in the tall weeds a moment later saying, “Got it!”
“Aye, and I’d say it got you too lad!” The giant laughed so hard he shook the trees around them to their roots.
“Yes, well, you forgot to mention that you keep 40 gallons of wine in here, Tim.” Shane pointed out as he picked himself up out of the grass and made his way back to the stone upon which he had been sitting.
“Do you need some help with that, lad?” Tim offered, seeing that Shane was struggling with it.
“No no. I think I can handle it okay,” Shane assured the giant as he uncorked the wine skin, and attempted to hoist it to his lips as the giant had done. The weight of the wine proved to be a bit too much for him to handle, However, and to Shane’s dismay he ended up wearing more wine than he drank.
“That there is what we call alcohol abuse laddie,” big Tim said, rising to give the boy a hand. “Here then, allow me to assist you before you drown yourself in my good wine.” The giant then held the wineskin aloft for Shane while he guided it to his lips himself. He drank a mighty draught that nearly matched that of the red giant.
By the time he pushed the wineskin away he could already feel the warm soft glow of the strong wine beginning to spread down into his belly like a slowly smoldering fire. “That’s wine?” He asked, with no small doubts.
“Well, yeah, for the most part it is, lad. It’s my own concoction of French wine and a well-aged Welsh Brandy thrown in to give it a little extra kick. Do you not like it, lad?” He asked, placing the spout to his own lips once more.
He took a second huge draught that Shane was sure would have been more than enough to put him out of commission for the evening. As unaccustomed as he was to drinking any sort of alcohol even at the ripe old age of 16. An age when most young men were already drinking.
“Ahhhh!” Big Tim sighed, happily smacking his lips as he lowered the now much lighter wineskin. “Now that is some good stuff there lad!” He boomed as he replaced the cork and returned the wineskin to his backpack.
From a side pouch the giant pulled out a much smaller bag that appeared to be made from a silver wolf’s hide. Had an intricately carved ivory pipe of giantish proportions inside of it, and he filled it with tobacco from the pouch. Taking a burning stick out of the fire, Tim placed it over the bowl and began puffing away at it with gusto.
“Now then,” he said settling down on the grass again. “What could be better for the soul than a good fire, good company, good wine, and a pipe in the cool of the evening?” He wondered aloud as he blew several large bluish gray smoke rings that flew out and over the campfire where they vanished in the smoke.
Shane was half in the bag by then from all of the fortified wine he had drank, and he allowed that he could not imagine anything better. Even though he did not smoke tobacco. Not since that one disastrous experiment that he and Tavian had made with a little bit of tobacco and a borrowed pipe out behind his father’s barn one fine day.
Shane had taken one big long drag from the pipe and inhaled it as Tavian had instructed him. He’d nearly choked to death while simultaneously attempting to vomit up his socks. He had turned eighteen colorful shades of green according to Tayvian. To make a bad situation far worse, his father had caught them when he heard Shane coughing and gagging out behind his barn and went to investigate. Tavian had gotten off easily with nothing but a stern reprimand. Shane was not quite so lucky.
Not only had his father not whipped him like he had expected, he had not even yelled at him. Instead he gave Shane his own pipe, and his tobacco pouch and he told him to smoke it. Shane made a feeble attempt to decline the offer but, Rande insisted. He filled the bowl for him and Shane knew he had no choice but to do as he was told so he lit it up and began puffing on it.
“No no, lad. You have to inhale the smoke like a man if you want to smoke like a man.” Rande had scolded him, so Shane inhaled it again. At first he was coughing and gagging, but, he soon got used to it, and found it to be somewhat agreeable. He even made a comment or two about the quality of the tobacco and how well the pipe smoked. When he had finished smoking that bowl his father filled the pipe up again and told him to smoke that too. His tone made it very clear that this was also an order, not a request.
Shane smoked that pipe load of tobacco, and by the time he was finished he was beginning to feel a little woozy. Rande, however, was not through teaching the boy his lesson yet. He filled up a third bowl and handed it to Shane to smoke. By the time he got to the fifth pipe load, poor young Shane was beginning to turn a ghastly shade of green around the gills. His father could see that he’d learned his lesson, and he was getting through to the boy.
“Have you had your fill of smoking yet son?” His father asked, but Shane’s only answer was the sudden need to run and find a nice private spot to throw up for the next hour or two.
When big Tim offered Shane his wolf skin tobacco pouch he politely declined, saying, “No thank you, I don’t smoke anymore. I had to quit.”
They sat across the fire from one another talking about where they were from, and what they had seen , and done with their lives so far. Tim told Shane that he was on his way to Lorraine which was far to the east of Shane’s village back home. He was going there to attend a family reunion he said.
“Are all of the people in your family as big as you are?” Shane asked the giant who laughed and said, No, lad, certainly not. I’m the youngest one of the litter and the smallest one of them all.”
” But, but you’re a giant!” Shane cried. He was astonished that anybody could call the Giant in front of him a runt. Sure, lad, that I am. But my older brother’s, of which there are six, are even bigger than I am. Though not by a great deal.” he added with emphasis.
“Shoot!” Shane gasped. Trying to wrap his brain around the idea of a man that was even bigger than the giant sitting across the fire from him.
The giant was happily blowing huge smoke rings into the night air.
“You’re almost as big as my horse!” He exclaimed.
“That I am,” replied big Tim. He laughed at the boy’s reaction to his size but that was something the giant was quite used to as one might imagine.
“By the way, speaking of your magnificent stallion I meant to ask you. Where in the world did a poor shepherd boy ever come by an animal such as this? You didn’t go and steal him now did you lad?”
” Steal him? Oh, no sir, I can assure you I am no horse thief!” Shane assured the red giant that was eyeing him rather suspiciously. “I got him on my 16th birthday which was only last month.”
“Your father gave him to you then did he?”
“No sir, he was a gift from my new master Sheldrake the Elder, along with the saddle and the tack that you see here.” Shane said pointing to the tack.
“Aye, I see them lad, and fine they are for sure, but I am almost positive that I’ve seen this same animal somewhere before in the past. What is he called?” The giant asked.
“His name is Dark Star, but I call him Star for short.” Shane replied.
“Oh yes I do know this brave, and noble steed. He’s a war horse.” The giant said, eyeing the stallion who was grazing nearby like he could not hear their conversation a stone’s throw away.
“You do? From where?”
“From the time he carried the valiant Prince Ragnar into battle against the Savage forces of King Rohond when their armies fought on the bloody planes of Morin. Before that I saw him when he carried the brave, Sir Gilland, also known as the White Knight, into battle twice against the Huns in the battle of the freemen of 37 and 39.”
” Wow! Really?!” Shane whistled appreciatively. He had heard a great many stories about those now famous battles fought against his country’s most fearsome enemies, and won by its most legendary heroes.
“Certainly. It is the very same stallion or I’ll pluck my beard out one whisker at a time.” The giant assured Shane who was looking at the horse with new found respect.
“He must be a lot older than he looks,” Shane ventured.
“Aye, that he is, lad. That he is. This one is a very old veteran war horse indeed. It’s said that he was enchanted by a wizard that used to own him a long time ago. The wizard only rode him into battle once. That was against the Troll Army back in 66 when he was killed in action. Just then Dark Star wandered over to the fire and laid his big black muzzle on the red giants shoulder, and allowed the big man to scratch him between the ears. A definite sign of respect for that particular horse. “You see, lad? Tim said, “He remembers me sure enough.” the giant laughed as Dark Star stuck his cool wet nose in the big warrior’s ear giving him an equine wet willy.
“Sure and he hasn’t changed one bit either have you you old plow horse you?” The black stallion enjoyed the attention and tossed his great black mane by shaking his head. Causing Shane and the giant to burst into laughter. Shane was about to say something funny when the spell was broken suddenly by the sharp crack of a twig broken underfoot. It had come from the woods directly behind them.
Dark Star’s head snapped up at the sound, and both men started, looking in the direction the noise had come from. The direction in which the stallion was staring, but the dark night beyond the little circle of light from the campfire meant the two of them couldn’t see a thing. Especially since their eyes had become fully accustomed to the light from the fire.
Big Tim reached behind his back and unslung his massive crossbow faster than Shane would have believed possible. Then a sinister voice from out of the darkness warned, “No no no! I wouldn’t do that if I were you giant, for my own crossbow is already trained upon you. And since I can see you and you cannot see me, I think it would be quite unwise to challenge me.”
Big Tim paused as though he were debating both sides of the argument against the possibility of getting off a lucky shot before he was shot himself. In the end he decided that the intruder was right. To resist would be foolish indeed. “What do you want from us you bloody scoundrel?” Big Tim growled any voice that would have scared a hungry polar bear away from a freshly killed seal. It didn’t seem to faze the intruder the least bit, however.
“I only want whatever you choose to give me giant,” the sinister voice sneered from the darkness.
“We don’t want to give you anything you stinking sneak-thief!” Big Tim snapped back.
“Yeah! You heard what the man said. Be gone, thief!” A half drunk, Shane interjected as he reached to get a chunk of firewood to toss on the campfire. A low twhip sounded from the darkness followed by a dull thud as a fletched black bolt fired from a crossbow buried itself in the firewood a few inches from Shane’s outstretched hand. Shane held it up for Big Tim to see while he himself stared at it like it had appeared there by magic.
“There are plenty more where that one came from, lad.” The sinister voice warned them with yet another audible sneer. “And there’s already another one aimed at your heart. So unless you want to feel its sting, I would suggest that you give me everything of value you have. Starting with that horse and saddle. You can add to that whatever gold or silver you might have on you as well.”
” I have no gold or silver, sir. I am but a poor Shepherd boy,” Shane lied, hoping he would not be searched.
“Nor do I you filthy scoundrel!” The giant growled menacingly.
“Fine I’ll just take the horse and tack and I’ll be on my way.” the thief said merrily.
“You can’t take my horse! Please sir I beg of you!” Shane pleaded, “he’s all I have in this world.”
But the evil Intruder was unmoved.
“You mean he is all that you used to have in this world, lad. Now saddle him up quickly and don’t try any funny business or I’ll put a bolt through your hide for sure if you do.”
“Yes sir, Shane said as he rose up on unsteady legs to wobble over and begin saddling the black stallion.
The horse was quivering with rage, as was the Giant warrior from being helpless to thwart their unseen enemy. Shane attempted to stall for time, but the thief warned him to, “hurry it up or else!”
He hardly needed to explain to Shane what ‘or else’ entailed. When Dark Star was saddled the still unseen thief ordered Shane to place his gilded saddlebags along with both of their packs on the stallion’s back. This he did, but with great reluctance.
The thief then ordered both of them to empty out their pockets but that search turned up nothing of any real value. Both Shane and the giant kept their money hidden away, and not in their pockets either.
At long last the sinister voice commanded Shane to take Dark Star and lead him over to the trees where he was waiting. “Do it nice and slow and don’t you even think about trying anything funny, boy or I’ll drop you in your tracks.” The voice warned.
“Yes sir. I, I mean, no sir.” Shane said, as he took the stallion’s reins and told him, “come on, Star.” He led the old war horse over to the trees to hand him over to a sneak thief.
“Stop right there lad,” The voice ordered when they reached the edge of the trees. Shane stopped where he was, and awaited further instructions. He could tell the thief was very close from the sound of his voice when he again ordered Shane to stop. When the man moved out of the shelter of the trees he was almost directly in front of them. In the pitch darkness with his eyes still not fully adjusted to the dark due to the firelight that had dilated them, so Shane could not make out any of the man’s features. All he could see was a pasty white weasel-like face, and the loaded crossbow in his right hand that was pointed directly at Shane’s chest.
“Hold his reins for me while I mount up boy, and don’t you even twitch.”
“No sir, Shane assured him as the thief mounted his horse and sat down in his saddle.
“Here now boy. Give me his reins and step away from my beautiful new horse. He and I are going for a late night ride in the Moonlight.” the thief stated with a cruel laugh.
“Please sir, I beg of you. Please don’t take him away from me, please! Shane pleaded one last time but the black heart of the thief held no pity for any of his victims. “Sorry, lad, but in this world it’s only the strong that survive. Someday you will understand that,” the thief said with an evil laugh.
“Yes sir, Shane said as he lowered his head and said goodbye to his horse. Goodbye, old friend, I sure am going to miss you,” he said.
Dark Star knickered softly in reply and nuzzled Shane with his great black muzzle.
End of Chapter.