The first sword missed Aidan’s head by an inch. It slammed into the massive catapult’s wheel, stuck for a moment, and jerked free. In that breath of time, Aidan batted away the second sword and threw himself down the hill.
This foe was beyond Aidan’s skill. His only chance was to get away, to escape with . . . Aidan looked down at the torn parchment in his hand. It was something important, this parchment, something of infinite value, the key to it all—only Aidan could not remember why it was so precious. He only knew that it was and that he must not let the enemy get it.
As he ran, Aidan glanced over his shoulder. The knight in dark armor crashed down the hill, gaining rapidly. His cloak trailed behind him like a gray wing, and he swung his two swords in wide arcs, carving the wind. The blades came closer . . . and closer.
Before Aidan could run another yard, the knight in dark armor fell upon him. Aidan turned, fended off a blow, then ran a few steps; turned again, sidestepped one blade, and barely blocked the other.
“Where will you go?” rasped a voice that seemed to reach for Aidan. “Your kingdom is in ruin. Even your King has fled. All is lost!”
The enemy’s taunts threatened to strangle the small hope that lingered in Aidan’s heart. But Aidan would not give in.
Aidan blocked another savage blow from the enemy and slashed away his second blade. Again, Aidan lunged away from his foe.
Suddenly, he saw his chance. Beyond the next hill a horse struggled, its reins tangled around its dead rider’s arm. Drawing from his final reserve of strength, Aidan charged up the hill and dove for the horse. It shrieked and staggered under the sudden weight but did not fall. Aidan swept his sword up and cut the tangled reins. He thrust the parchment under his breastplate and slapped the horse hard on its hindquarters.
“Go!” Aidan screamed.
The beast reared briefly but then surged ahead with such force that Aidan nearly fell. He could not reach what was left of the reins with his free hand, so he clutched the horse’s neck with all his might.
Aidan looked back. The knight in dark armor was now far behind and had given up pursuit. Just as Aidan allowed himself a grim smile, something hit him—hard—in the back, knocking him off the horse. He heard a sharp snap and felt the air forced out of his lungs.
He lay in a heap, his face to the ground. A dull pain throbbed in his right wrist. Dizzy, he spit dust and debris from his mouth, and looked up weakly from the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an enormous black wing in the gray sky.
Suddenly, Aidan was kneeling on a high stone platform. His sword was gone, and his hands were bound behind him. A pale warrior stood tall before him. His long gray hair was drawn back, and a thin black circlet—like a thin crown—rested above his strong brow and penetrating hazel eyes.
When he spoke, a shrill ringing came to Aidan’s ears. The sound faded and he heard the warrior’s words. He was saying, “. . . make you the same offer I made your companions.” His voice sounded rich and kingly—above all else to be trusted. “In spite of my generosity, they chose the weaker path.”
Aidan turned and saw two knights facedown beside him. They somehow seemed familiar, but they lay unnaturally still. And looming proudly over the bodies was the dark knight brandishing his twin blades.
Aidan looked questioningly back to the warrior before him.
“They have lost,” he said, clasping his hands before his chest.
“But their loss is your gain. You will have all that was to be theirs and so much more.”
The warrior seemed to grow. His presence intensified. And when he spread apart his hands, Aidan saw visions of grand towers, high thrones, and vaults of gold. It was all there for the asking, Aidan knew.
“Look about you,” the warrior continued. “All that you have defended is lost. There is nothing left.”
Aidan turned and saw desolation. Everywhere were fallen towers, rent walls, charred debris, and broken bodies. The sky was black, roiling with dark clouds and smoke from a thousand fires.
“All you must do,” said the warrior, “is deny the one who abandoned you.”
A profound wave of peace washed over Aidan, and he looked steadily into the eyes of the warrior. He spoke calmly. “I will never deny my King!”
The dark knight came forward with his two swords, but his master held up a hand. “I’ll do it myself,” the warrior said. The warrior’s hazel eyes flickered red as he drew a long, dark sword and drove the blade through Aidan’s breastplate.
“Uhnnn! Ah, ahhhhh!” Aidan screamed. He writhed on his bed and knocked his lamp off the table. It crashed to the ground and shattered, awakening Aidan. He shook violently, and his stomach churned. Something heaved inside him. Barely avoiding broken glass, he bolted to the hall bathroom and threw up. He collapsed and rested his head on the toilet seat.
“Aidan?” came Grampin’s voice from the study downstairs.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes!” Aidan lifted his head and managed a hoarse yell. “I’m fine!”
Aidan shook his head despondently and let it thud down on the seat. The dream had been horrible, but waking up to find that his family had actually moved across the country—to Aidan, that was the real nightmare.