Prelude – (6 years ago)
It was the lazy days of summer, before the stifling heat would come to an end and the nights would grow long and cool. It was also a wonderful time to be a child. The three brothers romped about in the small field surrounded by massive trees and thick underbrush. Here rules did not apply. The massive boughs coated with moss concealed them from prying eyes. In the heart of the thickets, lied the forest's best kept secret. Fireflies. Every night the dancing lights would come out to play as the skies darkened. At ten years of age, Troy was delighted that his older brother Apollus had decided to come here with them tonight. Even though his brother was two years older, he still had not outgrown the wonders of watching as well as catching fireflies. But for Barbarius, being the oldest at fourteen, this would be his last time joining them.
"Barbarius!" The voice seemed to shake the leaves from the trees. They knew the clear firm voice well even when his face remained hidden in the thickets. Father. "Leave the fireflies alone for your brothers. You are too old to go chasing fireflies. You are going to leave your childishness behind you if you want to be king," he muttered gruffly.
"All right," Barbarius groaned, rolling his eyes. He knelt down and placed the jar next to a fallen log. He wistfully looked at the jar as he slowly backed away, slowly heading towards the dense foliage where his father waited. The two younger brothers found his jar and stared at it with wonder and envy.
"He has so many," Troy said with a sigh.
"I wish I could take one," Apollus said. "Maybe I could borrow some of his."
Troy looked at the bugs all crammed in the jar as they crawled around each other or flew and hit the sides of the glass jar. With his small hands, he opened the lid. Before he got it halfway open, the critters scrambled to escape. He was overwhelmed as the sparks buzzed in his face as if they were angry for holding them captive. The glowing sparks flew over his head and into the violet sky.
"Close the lid!" Apollus shouted. Troy fumbled with the lid until it was closed again. By now most had escaped. In a last ditch attempt they tried to recapture them, but with little success. Before long they realized that Barbarius was gone and they needed to run along before they too were forgotten. Those were the times of innocence. It was a time of care-free bliss when laughter could be heard from the mouth of babes. A time of joy that could be seem…felt... heard...touched, and tasted with the all the senses that ran through them like water. Soon it would be left alone in the dark woods to be abandoned and forgotten, but only time would tell if they were forever forgotten.
Chapter 1: "Dark Rider" (Present)
"Troy. You want to race down the hill to the trees?" Romeos asked with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Both of our horses slowed to a halt. Everything always seemed to be a game to him. Then again I was used to it by now. Although we were opposites, I had gotten closer to him than his twin brother Julius. One of the few things he was serious about was his goal to be admitted to the prestigious rhetoric school. That was where all the wealthy families sent their sons when they became men at 16 to become well-versed men. For me the world...well at least the island lay in front of me. However, I still answered to one person.
"I should be heading back. My father would kill me," I said, looking down at the reins.
"I can understand if you are scared of what your father would do. I am scared too," Romeos teased. "Do not fret," he said, wearing his usual good-natured grin. "We will be done well before dark. Promise. Besides should not Apollus start coming back by now? Who knows maybe he could join us," he said, shrugging.
"I really do not think he would care. He has his other concerns on his head," I said as my eyes drifted to the expanse beyond. Scattered trees dotted the rolling pastures. From this vantage point I could observe our large domus dwarfed in size amongst the sprawling fields. I could even see a glimpse of the capital Apathia miles away.
"Like what?" Romeos quizzed.
"I will tell you when I beat you on the way down the hill," I scoffed. I pulled the reins, jolting me in a whirl of motion.
"Wait for me," Romeos called out. Before you knew it, we were both down the hill with neither one knowing what or who could await us there.
I never felt as free as the exhilarating rush of cold air pummeled my face, sending my curls flapping against my brows and ears. I was riding Midnight, my new horse, across the dull browns and greens of the pastures that still were damp from the cold rains. The hooves swished against the vegetation at unmatched speeds. As the son of the king of Aegea, I was used to feeling entitled but this was different. Here I felt invincible.
"Faster, faster, faster," I shouted as he galloped towards the sunset. Layers of blue, violet, and orange light greeted my eyes as the sun dipped below the voluminous clouds. Now that the race was over I was alone in the expanse of grassy pastures that would abruptly end at the cliff's edge to the far east of me. As the horse began to slow, an eerie silence blanketed the cool air. I turned the horse around only to discover I was not alone. A horseman, dressed in what looked like a black cloak pranced along the horizon, teetering towards the cliffs. It was too far to see his face, which was shrouded by a black hood. Who is that? Is this Apollus or Romeos trying to pull a practical joke? I firmly pulled the reins to stop Midnight from venturing any further, waiting to see what the rider's next move was. The strange horseman turned around to face me head on. If he did not see me before he saw me now.
"Who are you?" I muttered aloud. "There is no more need for practical jokes." The only sound between us was moving air. I squinted. It was neither Romeos nor Apollus. My grip tightened on the reins.
"It is not safe boy," I whispered in Midnight's ear. "It is time to go back home." As the horseman galloped closer, I noticed a long sword sticking out his sheath. Whoever it was they did not come in peace. A cold breeze sent me shivering in my woolen cloak.
"Midnight, we have to head back home!" I commanded in a low but firm voice. The rider and his horse were galloping faster.
"Go!" I shouted, yanking the reins. With a jerky start Midnight jolted into a sprint, kicking up clods of dirt. The horse and its rider only seemed to be closing in as the pounding hooves grew louder. I reached into my sheath only to realize I had left my sword at home.
"What do you want from me?" I spat. His reply came with a swift swiping motion of the sword, aimed at my head. I ducked low, clinging to the coarse mane that slipped through my fingers. My head was in a blur as my heart threatened to explode from my chest. I only had room for one thought. Stay alive.
"Go faster!" I snapped at the horse. Midnight madly galloped in response. Through the dizzying blur, I could see our home growing larger. The wind was blowing hard against my face I struggled to catch my breath. In the corner of my eye I watched the deranged rider take another aim.
Swing left. I yanked the reins, steering Midnight from the blow. I looked back to see how much distance we had surpassed. I was almost neck to neck with the rider. Peeking through the hood was a long face. He tilted his face towards me revealing a pair of sharp gray eyes. He only mirrored my motion. If I was going to outsmart him I had to trick him. Silently, I steered the horse making a sharp right to the south end of the fence.
A high-pitched neigh rang in my ears.
I rattled violently in my saddle as we skid downhill. I looked behind in horror as half of the tail hair was cut close to the buttocks. This man is crazy! I needed to get to the gate and fast!
"Someone open the gate please!" I yelled. Sweat trickled down my brow. Then I saw a young male slave out in the field. He looked up.
"Open the gate! Someone is chasing me! Hurry!" He dashed to the gate without hesitation. The gap between me and the rider was closing in again. As the slave scrambled to the gate, I knew he would not be able to unhinge the gate in time. As the horse came barreling towards the fence I had no choice but to jump. As the horse lifted in the air, the gate door swung open. Just as the front legs cleared the fence, I heard a loud thud. My heart stopped. I found myself falling from the flailing horse before everything went black—