Talal fed and watered the horses before he joined his companions around the campfire. His manservant, Sigmund the Elder, was slowly turning the spit on their evening’s meal, his lean frame wrapped in a wool robe. On the spit was a small octubruin, skinned and gutted, that had wandered too far from its pack. Just one of its eight legs would make a full meal for the three men. The rest would be dried and salted for the journey ahead.
“'Tis a cold night, by the Oracle.” Marcus said, pulling up the zipper on his down-filled coat. It was an antique passed down many generations, each patch a badge of honour. There was faded label inside that read in the ancients’ script that it had been manufactured in 1968. The coat was a bit tight on his bulky frame, but Talal’s man-at-arms did not seem to mind.
“Here, have some hot rewberry cider.” Sigmund said as he passed over the dented kettle that had been sitting by the fire. “It has a bite to it, but it will warm thee up but good.”
Marcus grinned and poured a healthy shot of the potent drink into his clay mug.
“Don’t drink too much, dear friend.” Talal warned as he carved off a piece of the octubruin, its rich meat steaming in the cold night air. “We must wake early on the morn if we are to catch the ferry. It’s a full two day’s ride to the Black River and it only runs once a day.”
“Don’t worry, Sigmund.” Talal chided. “Nothing will go wrong. That ol’knob of a ferryman can’t hurt us as long as I carry the talisman.” Talal held up the golden amulet he wore around his neck, the blood-red gem at its center reflected the firelight like a dying Cyclops’ eye.
“Please I bid thee put it back, sire.” Sigmund said, making the sign of the Oracle on his forehead. “May the sweet Oracle protect us if you ever lose it.”
Talal chuckled, but put the talisman back under his tunic.
“Now eat up so we can get to sleep. I don’t want you falling off your horses tomorrow.”
Talal and his men arrived at the banks of the Black River just as the sun was about to set, its dark waters sluggishly churning past. The Black River was wide; his far shore unseen in the fading light. There were no vessels in sight.
“The ferry is not here.” Sigmund said with undisguised relief. “Perhaps we’ve missed it.”
“It’s coming.” Talal said simply as he got off his horse.
The sun seemed to be yanked below the peaks of the distant Jagged Tooth Mountains, plunging the landscape into twilight.
As if on cue, a creaking noise could now be heard drifting across the water. Sigmund pulled his robes tighter around his thin body.
In a few moments a dark shape materialized out of the dusk: the Black River Ferry. The vessel was ten paces long and five paces wide, large enough to easily transport a dozen men and their mounts. At the back was hooded figure leaning on a long pole, pushing the ferry towards shore.
The horses whinnied in fear, rolling their eyes. The three men had to struggle to keep them calm and under control.
“Hocus-pocus.” Sigmund muttered darkly under his breath as he held his mare’s reigns tightly.
The ferry pushed its flat prow onto the bank, forming a natural ramp. There were no railings to protect one from falling into the dark waters.
“Hail Ferryman.” Talal called out loudly. “My servants and I seek passage across the Black River.”
“Three Imperial Crowns each…paid in advance.” Issued a gravelly voice from the blackness of the hood. A skeletal hand reached out, palm up.
Sigmund whimpered and Marcus took half a step back.
“We shall pay thee when thou get’s us to the other side.” Talal said smugly as he pulled out the talisman from his tunic.
The hooded figure cringed as though repulsed by the amulet. They could all hear an angry hiss.
Tightly gripping his horses reigns, Talal led it onto the ferry.
Once they were all on, the ferryman used his pole push away from the bank. The shore quickly vanished into the darkness—the ferry carried no light. The only sounds were the horses’ frighten breathing and the water brushing against the shallow hull.
Feeling bold, Talal strode towards the bow where the ferryman stood. “Tell me, good Ferryman. Will the voyage be long?” Talal took delight as the figure leaned back from him.
“We shall arrive in two candles’ time, my lord.”
“Ahhh…good.” Talal resisted the urge to pat the ferryman on the back. No sense pushing his luck.
He walked to his two men who were comforting the horses.
“See, I told you no harm could befall us as long as I had the talisman.” Talal said proudly as he held up the talisman on its golden chain.
He saw Sigmund’s eyes grow suddenly wide, a gasp escaping his thin lips.
Talal laughed. “Stop worryi—“
Talal felt himself yanked to the side as long, waterlogged pole was thrust through the gap between the amulet and his body. There was a sharp jerk and the chain snapped, the talisman spinning off into the air and vanishing it then night.
Marcus pulled out his sword, while Sigmund fainted dead away. Clutching his neck in pain, Talal turned around and found himself face to skinless-face with the ferryman, its hollow sockets glowing with unholy fire.
“I think it is time we renegotiated the terms of our agreement, my lord…”
Continuing on my write of passage,