Sir Lambert rode on tirelessly across the desert urging his trusty steed on. The horizon was already beginning to glow pale red, heralding the beginning of a new day. Damascus galloped on with as much determination as the horseman in his saddle.
A deep bond existed between Sir Lambert and his black stallion. They had braved many battles together over the years, defending their kingdom, Octavia, in service of their king.
“Onward!” urged Sir Lambert.
Damascus galloped even faster, seeming to understand the urgency in Sir Lambert’s voice, leaving behind little red dust clouds where his hooves plodded into the soft, dry sand.
Zalhar was a desolate and foreboding wasteland, immense in its vastness. The crimson sands went on in every direction as far as the eye could see. The terrain was bland and featureless save for a few dunes scattered across the landscape. This was the most inhospitable place on the planet. It was also a natural border between the kingdoms of Octavia and Avalon, the largest kingdoms on Carac.
Zalhar was a real no man’s land, belonging to neither kingdom.
Time was of the essence and Sir Lambert understood the dire consequence of his late arrival. Failure to reach King Wilbur, ruler of the land of Octavia by sunrise would undoubtedly result in war.
The uneasiness between Avalon and Octavia had been growing steadily over the months. King Roland, absolute ruler of Avalon was well known for his propensity for military solutions. The smaller kingdoms which once existed just beyond the borders of Avalon had quickly fallen to Roland’s hunger for power.
There were whispers that a massive battalion of King Roland’s best soldiers were preparing to invade Octavia very soon.
Sir Lambert, the bravest and most revered knight in all Octavia had been dispatched by King Wilbur on a diplomatic mission to neighbouring Avalon, to meet with King Roland and establish the facts. Unlike his counterpart, King Wilbur preferred diplomatic solutions and was known throughout Carac for his patience and fairness.
King Wilbur’s easy demeanour was by no means a sign of weakness though. He possessed a mighty army of brave and disciplined knights who were all ready to give their lives in defence of their kingdom.
King Wilbur was taking no chances. His knights were already assembled just outside the castle walls and ready to ride if Sir Lambert failed to return by sunrise this morning.
The tension between Carac’s largest kingdoms stemmed from the ever increasing number of Octavians who visited the Artefact which resided at the edge of Zalhar, very close to Avalon.
Discovered over 300 years ago, the Artefact was a small metallic vessel which had fallen out of the sky and come to rest somewhat intact in the sands of Zalhar. The outer parts of this vessel were burnt and deformed but the interior had remained undamaged.
Language and culture developed over the years as a direct result of this Artefact. Inside, it contained a gold plaque showing an image of a man and woman and information which suggested that it had travelled from a nearby star. Early records from history also suggested that a device inside this vessel produced sounds but this had stopped working after a few months.
As time went on, the people of Carac were able to decipher the markings found inscribed on the various parts of the Artefact. It read “Pioneer 10”.
The Octavian skyline was now visible in the distance, illuminated from behind by the fast approaching double sunrise and framed by a red hue from the desert sand.
Sir Lambert didn’t have much further to ride and his steed seemed to feel the same, picking up the pace even more.
Meanwhile, King Wilbur and his army grew restless as the sunrise approached. War was the last thing he wanted, but the sunrise grew nearer still, and there was no sign of Sir Lambert.
“The men are ready, Your Majesty, and it is time,” reported Lord Fenton. “We should ride.”
“War is the last thing I want, and I have the utmost confidence in Sir Lambert,” replied King Wilbur in his deep and regal voice. “We’ll wait just five more minutes.”
“As you wish,” said Lord Fenton. The short, stocky man bowed quickly and walked off.
King Wilbur was a wise and respected leader who was loved by his people. He was a tall and well built man. His shoulder length white hair and neat white beard gave him a look of nobility. He always spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing his words carefully.
But, underneath the nobility and wisdom, he was a troubled man. His thoughts were with his beloved daughter, Jasmine, who was extremely ill, and she grew weaker by the day.
“Your Majesty!” King Wilbur was jolted back from his thoughts. “The five minutes are up.”
As King Wilbur looked up to face Lord Fenton, and reality, he became aware of a commotion in the distance. He strained his ears to listen as the noise grew louder yet.
He and Lord Fenton listened intently, trying to make sense of the din.
“Are we being invaded?” asked King Wilbur with a concerned look.
“No, it sounds like cheering,” he thought out loud. “Could it be that Sir Lambert had returned safely?”
By now the men were chanting “Lambert! Lambert!”
King Wilbur breathed a sigh of relief and broke out into a huge smile. His friend had returned safely and war had been averted.
Soon, Sir Lambert himself was standing in front of King Wilbur. “Your Majesty,” he said in a hoarse whisper, handing over a rolled up parchment containing the seal of King Roland.
“Give this man water and take him to the castle!” ordered King Wilbur.
“A feast shall be held tonight at the royal courtyard in his honour and everyone is welcome!”
Word of Lambert’s return and the feast had spread rapidly through the nearby villages resulting in a huge turn out that evening. King Wilbur was a generous man and it was evident. All sorts of meats, vegetables and fruits were laid out on the tables for all to partake in. There were a variety of ales and wines by the barrel to accompany the food and condiments. The royal orchestra played in the background adding to the jovial atmosphere.
The King was not in the best of spirits, however and remained indoors after welcoming everyone. He was relieved that Sir Lambert had returned safely but the prospect of losing his only daughter to the strange illness which had befallen her weighed heavily on his heart. He had to appear strong for the sake of his kingdom, but he was still human, and a father, and not above feeling sadness. He sat at her bedside while his subjects feasted outside, silently praying for a miracle.
She was unconscious and appeared to be in pain from the contorted expression on her face and beads of perspiration on her brow.
King Wilbur had lost his wife many years ago when Jasmine was still a little girl and father and daughter had become very close since then. Now that Jasmine was approaching her eighteenth birthday, she looked even more like her mother.
The feasting continued unabated in the courtyard while King Wilbur dealt with his personal heartache alone.
“Benjamin Dickens! Come here this instant!” screamed Martha. Her husband had clearly consumed too much ale by the sheepish look on his face.
“Hold your horses Martha, I’m a coming,” he stuttered, walking towards her while waving to the ladies behind him.
“NOW!” screamed Martha. She had seen him smiling at the ladies and was livid. Her husband had a roving eye whenever he drank ale and she was all too aware of this.
“Can’t a man have a little fun?” he started to protest, but stopped short as something in the night sky caught his attention.
“Look, a falling star,” he said to his wife, pointing skywards. “Make a wish, Martha.”
She looked up, and there, sure enough, was the brightest falling star she had ever seen.
Others had noticed it too and a silence fell over the crowd as they looked up, pointing.
“I wish that I could fall pregnant,” said Martha as a look of sadness crossed her face.
King Wilbur had also noticed this bright star from his daughter’s bedroom window and rushed to his study to fetch his telescope before emerging from his balcony.
The glowing object grew brighter still, and a distant roar was becoming audible. This was unlike any falling star he had ever seen. He looked through the telescope, rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and looked a second time. There was no doubt now.
A brisk wind began to blow. The crowd in the courtyard has stopped partying and the orchestra had fallen silent. All eyes were looking skyward at the large, glowing object which was fast approaching. It was clearly not a falling star and seemed to be heading towards the castle, though still quite far away.
The roar grew louder yet and the ground began to tremble as the object descended. The crowd’s curiosity quickly gave way to panic and fear.
There was chaos as everyone tried to clear the courtyard.
King Wilbur appeared on a balcony overlooking the courtyard to the sounds of trumpets. This stopped the chaos as everyone turned to face their King.
“Citizens,” he began in a loud and clear voice. “There is no need to panic. Everyone had best go home and await word by the morning.”
The crowd soon dispersed.
The ground trembled and the roar was deafening now as the massive object came to rest just behind the little mountain to the east of the castle, on the red sands of Zalhar. A short while later the roar had subsided and was replaced by a low hum.