The Watchtower of Xavier Singh
Joshua stopped them briefly and said to Hannibal, “This was the great watchtower of Xavier Singh. We’ll rest here tonight.” At that, he dismounted his horse and their escorts did likewise. Hannibal followed their example, motioning to his team to dismount. Everyone dismounted and followed Joshua as he led his horse up a narrow path to the fortress on top of the bluff. In minutes, they reached the fortress and went in. The fortress was no more than a shell with great holes in the crumbling twelve-foot thick walls.
Passing through a hole in the wall, they entered a large courtyard seventy feet wide by a hundred feet long. Giant blocks of stone lay scattered around the grass-covered courtyard. The bases of a pair of fountains filled with water sat on either end of the courtyard. The crumbled remains of the keep occupied the corner closest to where they entered the fortress. The lower portion of the keep remained intact despite a huge hole in its side that allowed entry to it. The partially standing remains of a large stable lay attached to the keep along the inside of the main wall. Four bays of the stable remained standing. Joshua’s men spread out to check the perimeter as Joshua checked the water in the fountains. He looked at it, smelled it, and then dipped his finger in the water, tasting it. Satisfied with what he found, Joshua said to Hannibal, “Let the horses drink. The water’s all right. The Emperor hasn’t tainted this water yet.” Hannibal and his team led the horses to the fountain and let them drink.
As Joshua’s men converged on his position, he asked, “Are we secure?”
“Yes,” David stated. “The west wall is clear.”
“East wall is clear,” Rex stated.
“The north wall is secure,” Vergil called out.
“We’re clear on the south,” Aragon reported.
“What about the keep?” Joshua asked.
“The keep is secure,” David called out as he and Turner came out of the hole in the side of the keep. “It seems no one has been here since we last used it.”
“And four of the stable bays are still standing and safe to use,” Kwahu declared, walking up from the stables.
“That’s very good,” Joshua chimed as Hannibal approached with his team once they’d led the horses to the fountains. “We’ll set up camp inside the keep so the horses can graze on the grass out here in the courtyard for a while. Then we’ll secure the horses in the stables, just in case.” All of Joshua’s team agreed with his orders. “Kwahu, Gilbert; gather some firewood while we set up camp,” Joshua ordered.
“Yes, sir,” Kwahu and Gilbert replied simultaneously, going about gathering firewood before the daylight vanished.
In minutes, the camp was set up and a fire going just outside the hole in the keep. Everyone sat around the fire as the dinner rations were handed out: jerked meat, beans, some fruit, and water. Despite their weariness from the long ride, Hannibal’s team and Joshua’s team talked amiably, laughing and joking at times. Hannibal, on the other hand, sat silently eating his ration as he took in his surroundings. A feeling of foreboding teased him while he looked at the ruins around him in the waning apparent daylight.
“What’s wrong, Hannibal?” Selina asked, noticing his sullen demeanor as she sat next to him. “You don’t seem like your usual cheery self.”
“I don’t know, Selina,” Hannibal replied softly. “Something isn’t right. I feel like someone or something is watching me. Something’s out there. I know it, but I can’t tell if it’s good or evil.”
Selina put her arm around Hannibal and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Relax,” she purred. “You’re way too tense. Besides, it’s probably the fatigue from that ride talking. It’s making you paranoid again.”
“Oh, you’re probably right,” Hannibal conceded. “I’m dead tired from that ride.”
“Just relax and eat your dinner,” Selina ordered. “Put those worries out of your head for right now. Just enjoy the fact we’re being allowed to have a peaceful dinner. Nothing is out there hunting you.”
“I’d like to believe that,” Hannibal stated, biting off a piece of jerky after he spoke.
“Believe it,” Selina ordered. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
Hannibal smiled wearily as he swallowed the jerky after chewing it. “I know you aren’t,” he replied. “I guess I’m really lucky to have you as my bodyguard and friend.”
Selina gazed into Hannibal’s eyes with an unwavering look. “And more than that, my prince,” she said lovingly. “Much, much more; I’d die for you.”
“I know you would,” Hannibal admitted. “And I’d die for you too. You’re the only soul in this universe who’s ever been able to reach me.”
Selina patted Hannibal on the knee, smiling broadly. “I know,” she replied, “and you reached me. Now, what’s really bothering you?”
Hannibal gasped as he realized what she’d done. “Oh, you clever little minx,” he chimed. “You got me to lower my guard.”
Selina kissed him on the cheek and asked, “So what’s really wrong?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Hannibal stated as he realized he and Selina had become the center of attention. “But there’s something going on in the darkness. I can feel it. Something’s out there watching us at a distance like it did when we went through the canyons earlier today.”
“Do you know what it is?” Cole asked.
“No,” Hannibal stated as everyone finished dinner. “But I’ve had this bad feeling in the pit of my stomach since we left Karac, and it isn’t because of the quake at the bridge. It’s saying something is coming for me, but I can’t tell what it is or if I’m not just going insane. It’s infuriating.”
“Just relax, Hannibal,” Nathanael called out. “It’s this place. Even I can feel something isn’t right here. Maybe if we had a bit more information we’d be able to determine what’s going on here. Joshua, can you tell us about this fortress? What was it used for?”
“I can only tell you what we know from the writings,” Joshua stated.
“That’ll be fine,” Nathanael stated. “So, who was Xavier Singh?”
“Xavier Singh was the younger brother of the King of Khitia, Fenris Singh, back before the Kragonar,” Joshua explained. “He was Khitia’s top general and was responsible for the protection of Khitia from all threats. According to the writings, Xavier had this tower and several others constructed shortly after the Emperor rose to power to guard the frontiers of Khitia. This tower specifically was set here to guard the road we follow. When the Emperor overran Khitia in the old time, Xavier and his brother the King were forced to retreat to his very tower with what was left of their army after a devastating battle in and around the ruins of Karac. The Emperor laid siege to this tower, destroying it and those who defended it. It’s said that Xavier held off the Emperor’s legions while his brother, the King slipped away, heading northeast into the mountains of Khitia where it was rumored he had a refuge and was never seen again. Somewhere on this hill is a mass grave where Xavier and his defenders are buried. Legends say after the battle, Xavier’s spirit became a giant saber cat that prowls Khitia seeking to destroy any who threaten the safety of this land. His soldiers became the giant wolves that roam the plains and mountains of Khitia killing anyone who bears the Emperor’s brand. Other legends say the ghosts of Xavier and his men roam Khitia seeking vengeance on anyone who would side with the Emperor. But those are just legends.”
“Many times legend and myth have a germ of truth in them,” Hannibal declared. “That was how I found my way here. I didn’t just dismiss the legends and myths of my world as just fables. I searched them diligently and found the grains of truth in them, leading me to this place.”
“So what do you think?” Rex asked. “Is there a grain of truth in the tales of this place?”
“I suspect there are,” Hannibal stated. “I know a battlefield when I see one. This place reeks of a climactic battle. Just look at the ruins around us. These walls were broken not by natural processes, but by powerful weapons. Some of these stones still have the scorch marks where some form of explosive was used on them. However, I cannot say for sure that Xavier Singh and his army fell here. I don’t know enough about him or the event here to make an educated decision about it either way. Regardless, I don’t discount the legend we just heard. Maybe Xavier did die here with his army, sacrificing themselves so their King could escape. It was a noble sacrifice if they did. I wish I knew more about it.”
“Nicodemus can tell you much more about our history than I can,” Joshua stated. “He’s very well-versed in our history and has actually handled the written accounts of our history. You can ask him about it when we get to Arionath.”
“I think I will,” Hannibal chimed. “The more I learn about this land, the better.” As he spoke, a wolf howled in the distance, drawing Hannibal’s attention.
“It’s one of the giant wolves,” Joshua stated. “That’s their hunting call. The packs are preparing to hunt on the plains below us.” A chorus of howls answered the first call, sending chills down the spines of Hannibal’s team.
“They won’t come up here, will they?” Arabella asked.
“No,” Joshua replied. “They don’t generally hunt around here. Those howls are several leagues north of us in their territory. The wolves prefer the antelope to human meat. Besides, the approach to his tower is very steep with only one easy way to get up here.”
“I noticed that,” Nathanael stated. “This place is very defensible.”
“That’s why we use it when we come this way,” Joshua declared. “I’ve never seen wolf tracks or the tracks of any other animal around here for that matter. The wildlife avoids this place for some strange reason.”
“Maybe it’s the ghosts of Xavier and his men the animals avoid,” Kwahu suggested.
“I don’t think so,” Vergil retorted. “If the animals were scared of the ghosts of this place, then our horses would never let themselves be led up here. There’s something else keeping the wild animals away from here.”
“And what do you think that is?” Cole asked bluntly.
“Do I look like I know?” Kwahu replied tartly. “But there’s definitely something keeping the wild animals away from here.”
“Maybe it’s the smell of ancient death,” Nathanael suggested. “There’s a faint odor of ancient decay permeating this place. I became well acquainted with that scent as an archaeologist of the Kaitian Empire, and from working with Hannibal for two years. I’ve been in numerous ancient tombs and ruined cities where this scent is noticeable.”
“Can you really smell the ancient dead here?” Joshua asked with a raised eyebrow. “I can’t smell anything like that; just the grass, flowers, and dirt of this place.”
“Just barely,” Nathanael stated. “We Lynxian have a much more developed sense of smell than you humans. We can detect scents you cannot.”
“That’s wild,” Sam chimed.
“Indeed,” Jonathan agreed.
“So Hannibal, how’s that feeling in your gut doing now?” Nathanael asked.
“It’s still there,” Hannibal stated bluntly, “Something’s out there studying us. But what it is I cannot tell and whether it’s dangerous to us remains to be seen. I’d strongly suggest having at least two people stand watch at the same time. We cannot let our guard down.”
“I agree,” Joshua stated. “Even though the Emperor doesn’t seem to have reached this part of Khitia doesn’t mean he won’t. Furthermore, as you heard, the wolves and other predators hunt at night. Just because they haven’t been seen here doesn’t mean our presence won’t attract their attention. We need to remain alert to our surroundings. We’re not safe until we reach Arionath.” He turned to David, Timothy, Vergil, Zachias, Aragon, Turner, Cole, Kwahu, Gilbert, and Rex. “David, Gilbert, and I will take the first watch,” Joshua ordered. “Timothy…you, Vergil, Cole, and Rex take the second watch. I want Zachias, Aragon, Turner, and Kwahu on the third watch and David, Gilbert, and I will take the fourth. We must keep our guests safe until we reach Arionath and Nicodemus.”
“Yes, sir,” Joshua’s team chimed in unison.
“We can help watch if you need us,” Hannibal offered. “We’re all in this together.”
“I know,” Joshua replied. “But you are our honored guests. Nicodemus made it plain that your safety is our primary concern. We shall watch while you and your friends get some well-deserved sleep.”
“Okay,” Hannibal conceded. “We’re in your hands. But like I said last night in the other cave we camped in, if you need us, don’t hesitate to wake us.”
“Don’t worry,” Joshua stated. “We will. It’s getting dark now, and I can see the fatigue on all your faces. I suggest that you turn in and try to get some sleep. The trek over Khmer Shek is going to be a hard ride, much more difficult than the ride across the plain today. You’ll need all your strength.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Hannibal stated. “Maybe some shut-eye will remedy this sour feeling I have in my belly.”
“I hope it does,” Joshua stated as Hannibal stood. “Good night, brother.” Hannibal nodded and retired to his tent. Selina rose and bowed to the group, following Hannibal into their tent.
One at a time, the rest of Hannibal’s team followed his example, retiring to their tents for the evening; many of them exhausted with the ride. In minutes, the lights in the tents went out as Joshua and his team watched. Speaking to those he assigned to the second and third watches, Joshua ordered, “Before you guys bed down, let’s secure the horses.”
A round of ‘yes sir’s’ echoed from Joshua’s team. In five minutes, they gathered the horses and secured them in the stables, closing the heavy wooden doors to the stable bays and barring them from the outside. “Good work guys,” Joshua congratulated. “Now, the rest of you get some sleep while David, Gilbert, and I stand first watch. We’ll wake you when your watch is up.”
With that, everyone else except for David, Gilbert, and Joshua pulled out their blankets and bedded down around the tents in the keep. Joshua, Gilbert, and David settled around the fire for their watch, hearing Hannibal and Selina praying softly in their tent. A few minutes later, their prayers ceased as the pair fell asleep almost at the same moment.
“We must keep these people safe at all costs,” Joshua told his companions.
“Don’t worry,” Gilbert said. “We will.