Standing atop one of the towers of the castle just as the sun broke over
the horizon, Leo Gallen took in a sight he enjoyed just about this time every
morning. It was an eerie sort of glow that illuminated the castle every dawn,
and well worth appreciating before breakfast. Brick and stone almost seemed
to shimmer like metal under the bright rays, perhaps personifying the name
Today, the middle aged, yet tenacious and strong knight kept his eyes fixed off in the direction of the eastern gate, waiting to watch two old friends depart. Time had been kind to Iron Leo, the man known for his immense size and incredible strength. Gray hair had started to take over his head, and a few more lines of stress creased his face, but neither of these things affected his deadly swing with an axe.
Leo heard footfalls behind him, but did not turn around. He was sure it was just another friend, wanting to see Chris depart. By the length of the stride, he guessed it to be Roland, and when the other spoke, he realized he was correct.
Im not surprised in her choice of escort, but I do pray he will be on his best behavior, the elf said as he moved to stand next to the large man.
You worry too much, Roland, Leo said with a grin. I know Chris just as I know my own four girls, and I guarantee you that she wont put up with any of his stupidity.
Its not his stupidity Im worried about.
Ah, Leo said as he grinned at the elf. Its no secret how Borus feels for her, but I know that he respects her marriage and her husband.
You put more faith in him than I do in that regard, Roland said flatly. Do you remember when Borus and Percival first became acquainted with each other? They fought like dogs about every idiotic thing until Galahad had them locked in the same cell down in the dungeon for a week.
Leo gave a reminiscent smirk. And they walked out the best of friends. After a pause, he rubbed his chin and said, Though I wonder how well replace Borus in our next battle.
Noble, strong and a little short on brainsIm sure well find a suitable substitute among our ranks, said a tired voice as its owner approached from behind.
Leo laughed heartily at the Captains joke, but Roland didnt-- he never did, and the others had long ago learned to accept that humor was always lost on the elf. Pointing towards the eastern bridge, the large man announced, There they go.
The three knights watched in deferential silence as the two figures on horseback diminished into the distance, heading towards the Grasslands. From the tower, they looked nearly identicalboth dressed in leathers and mounted on sturdy bay chargers. Just as they were about to leave the stony bridge of the castle, the riders turned their horses around and waved in the direction of their friends above.
Salome, Leo and Roland all returned the farewell, but were unsure that they could be seen from the ground. The crenellated tower did a good job of hiding men who patrolled it, but still allowed one to keep watch. A moment later, the horses were pressed into a canter and carried their riders the distance to the horizon. When they were gone, Leo asked, What do you think shell learn from Lilly, assuming she finds her?
I dont know, but I wonder if the Council wasnt a little too eager to get rid of her, Salome answered with a sigh. Although Id rather have her out there than on the front lines.
Roland narrowed his eyes. I believe this is more dangerous and is just an excuse the Council is using to rid themselves of Chris. They despise her for not carrying out their wishes and being a host for that blasted Rune. All of their other hatred for her stems from that, Im sure of it.
Leo scratched the back of his neck. Aye. But we must remember that shes not a child. She has to make her own mistakes.
True, Salome said quietly. But I cant help but take some of the blame for the reason she feels she must put herself at risk.
As he scrutinized the rash of people going about their early morning business in the castle, Roland tugged on one of the many piercings that adorned his long ears. You shouldnt, my friend. Percival knew the perils of war, and so does Chris. Theres no way you could have foreseen the ambush at Dubios.
The Captain rubbed his forehead, but didnt respond to Rolands reasoning. Im sure shell find Lilly. I just hope old friendship takes priority over this war.
After a beat, Leo yawned and stretched his arms skyward. Im wondering how were going to take back Dubiosespecially if were not sure whats in there.
A sly calculated grin crossed the strategists lips. Oh, Ive got an idea about that.
I guessed you would have one, Captain. Roland said, a smile almost twitching across his austere face.
How many days do we have to prepare the men? Leo asked.
We march in three days, so Ill need you to start gathering provisions, Leo. The huge man nodded, but before he could speak, Salome turned to Roland and gave another order. Gather all the women in our Army and find them some dresses.
The stoic elf raised an eyebrow before giving a salute. I fear to ask what you are thinking, but I know enough to trust you.
Rain glazed stones made travel on the streets of Vinay del Zexay more difficult than usual for Louis, but this did not deter him from his self-appointed mission. Normally he would have walked the distance, but the sheeting downpour made that impossible. Wrapped in a cloak for fear of catching cold, he flagged down a carriage and paid the driver to take him to his destination.
As the wheels of the coach creaked along the slick streets of the city, he felt his sleeve to be sure he was carrying the document that needed to be delivered urgently. Satisfied that he had indeed remembered the precious package, he wrapped the blue woolen cloak tightly around his shoulders, and listened to the rain caroming on the roof.
Just as he felt himself start to doze off, the carriage came to an abrupt stop. The driver opened the door and said, Were here, Councilman.
Gathering his crutches, Louis said, Please wait. Ill pay you double for the return.
The man doffed his cap, and offered a hand to the former knight, who accepted the assistance. Being extra careful because of the slick conditions, he pulled himself up the marble steps of the immense house. Hed been here before, but every time he returned, it always seemed bigger. The tall oak doors were adorned with intricate carvings of scenes from legend, and in the center, the family seala stylized R.
Louis pulled the bell cord and waited. A moment later a servant answered the door and ushered him into the foyer. He asked, Is Lord Robert here?
Is he expecting you, milord?
No, but it is urgent. Please tell him that Louis Keeferson is here to see him.
The butler took the Councilmans cloak and bowed, leaving Louis alone in the extravagant foyer. Above him, a huge chandelier consumed most of the decorated ceiling, and the crystals that hung off it majestically magnified its soft candlelight. Web-like designs crept along the top of the room, flaunting a spectacular and unique show overhead. Enjoying this small bit of decadent beauty, he fondly thought of Torrie, and how her pride made her choose to leave this palace to live in her small flat.
Councilman! So good to see you! What brings you here on such a dreary night? Lord Robert called as he approached the younger man, interrupting his thoughts. Lets go into my study.
Louis smiled as he followed the merchant into a room off the foyer. It was relatively small, well appointed with a cherry desk, two wingback chairs and small, deep green sofa. The walls were paneled in matching wood, giving a strong feeling of warmth even though there was no fireplace to produce heat. A few papers were neatly stacked upon the desk, and a pair of deer antlers were mounted on the wall along with a couple of small landscape paintings. Pardon the hour, milord, but I received something from Brass Castle that I thought you should have immediately.
Good news, I hope? The older man asked with trepidation, as he motioned to the couch.
Glancing over his shoulder to be sure the door was closed, and satisfied that it was, Louis sat down and produced the paper from his sleeve and held it out to the other. Im not sure, milord. It is sealed.
Lines of concern traced Lord Roberts face, but they seemed to ease as he saw his own family seal on the back. Breaking the wax, he unfolded the paper and began to read the note.
Louis felt uncomfortable sitting there, as if he was intruding on a family matter. He started to pull himself to his feet. I shall be going then, milord. But I beg you not to mention this to anyone. It could cost me my head.
The elder man looked up, and then took a seat in the wingback closest to the Councilman. And mine as well. No worries, but please wait a moment before you leave.
Louis did as he was asked, and not even a minute later, the man smiled at him as he finished reading the note. Borus is well, and while I wish that some day he will return and run our business with his brother, I also know that he must follow his heart. You cannot imagine the relief it brings me to read a letter from him. I thank you for this, Councilman, and if theres anything I can do for you, please dont hesitate to ask.
Louis thought for a moment, I suppose Torrie told you everything?
Yes. I gave her the option of moving back here, but she didnt want to, and for that I am sad. I consider that girl to be the daughter I always wished for. He grinned at Louis, the friendly twinkle returning to his bright eyes. She has such a good heart and strong spirityoud best not break either!
Louis felt his face flush, Yes, milord.
Lord Robert grinned at him. Theres a good lad! Now, be assured that I told Torrie to spend as much time as she needs to with the children.
Louis nodded. Thank you for being so understanding. However, might I ask a favor?
I said not to hesitate.
Lady Chris told me to sell her sons pony so that Torrie wouldnt have to pay to feed it, but I think in doing so, the boy will be crushed. Would you keep it in your stables?
Of course, and be sure to tell him should he wish to ride, to come by any time.
The door cracked open and a tall, fair-haired man in his thirties entered. Louis knew him as Jared, the elder Redrum son. He gave a nod to Louis in greeting and then said, Father, dinners ready.
Lord Robert smiled, but did not rise from his seat. Open another bottle of wine. Were celebrating tonight, thanks to the news Councilman Keeferson has brought me.
Jared scoffed at his father, What are we celebrating? Has my brother managed to survive another battle in the adolescent fantasy he calls his life?
The portly man glared at his son, but still gave his reprimand in a gentle tone. Ill be grateful if you quit insulting your own family, Jared.
Family? Hes never aroundexcept when he needs to spend some of your money on pittances for others.
Lord Robert held up his hand sternly and laughed, clearly trying to make light of the situation. I consider it well spent, but enough of this argument. You must forgive my son for his ill manners, Councilman, but as you know, high spirits run in this family and often they make themselves known at the most inopportune times.
Louis smiled at the diplomatic way the man handled the situation. No problem, Lord Robert. Remember that I have six elder brothers. Sibling rivalry is nothing new to me.
The merchant laughed heartily as his son even gave a bit of a grin. Youre a good sport, Councilman. Care to join us for dinner?
Ah, thanks for the offer, but no. I regret that I have a previous engagement.
Im sure you do, Lord Robert said with a wink. Let me get you a bottle of my finest vintage. Shell need it after chasing two small boys all day!
Kylan stretched and leaned over the railing of her ship, relishing the refreshing salty smell of the sea. Ever since she was a girl, shed treasured these few moments when she could listen to the water clasp against the hull and feel the stray splashes touch her cheek. All twenty-eight years of her life shed lived on boats, and never once did she regret it. The ocean was so much more inviting than the land, although it commanded a great deal more respect from those who chose to make it their home.
Peering off into the distance, and the impeding fall of night, her eyes caught sight of a large bird, flying towards them and clearly carrying something tied to its leg. She gave a shrill whistle, calling the animal towards her, and held out an arm for it to land upon.
Rasfel, a redheaded man that had been with her since her father died, trotted over as he heard her signaling the bird. Captain, have we received new orders?
She smirked as she untied the small bundle from the bird. You should know by now that I give the orders, Shipman. These people simply pay me for my services.
Of course, my Captain, he humbly replied.
The woman unfurled the note and read it with a grin. They are finally learning. All of the information I requested has been sent the first time. Looking at the man, she said, It seems we have some more Zexens to hunt. Come about and set course for Dubios. Draw in the sheets and waste no time. I want landfall in two days or less.
Shall I send word to the rest of the fleet? He asked as he took the bird from her.
No, but signal our men on land. Well need their assistance yet again.
He silently gave a salute and went to follow the order.
Kylan watched as the sun crested behind the water, and made her way to the bow. Looking down into a grate, she nearly held her nose at the stench coming from below. Fearing her prey had perished in the three days she had kept him down there, she called, Andrew!
No response came.
She crouched down, trying to see into the depths of the chamber, but all she could make out was the dim outline of the top of his head. The thick, dark hair was matted down along the sides of his face, which she could not see. Again she yelled down to him, and again there was no response.
Panic started to strike her, but she refused to succumb to it. If her part of the contract had been broken, she could always explain it away by the risks of dealing with a trained knight. Still, hoping she wouldnt have to face her client, nor offer a refund of the large sum of money, she stomped on the grate, but the form below still didnt budge. Looking around the deck, she called out to two men who were tying off some fishing nets. They ran over and she pointed at the grate. Open it and haul him out. If hes dead, strip him, and toss him out to sea.
In unison they replied, Yes, my Captain.
Lord Robert sent this with his compliments, Louis said as he worked the cork out of the top of the wine bottle.
Torrie gave him a skeptical look, And just what were you doing at the store?
He poured the wineit was a sweet smelling white that normally must have been quite expensive, judging from just the quality of the aroma. Ah, I wasnt at the store, my dear.
You went to the house? She asked before fixing a harsh gaze on him, and asking a pointed question. Louis, what are you up to?
Nothing, I swear! He said, as he held up his hands in playful surrender. At her dubious look he conceded, I just asked him to stable Ryans pony. Thats all.
Chris wanted me to sell it.
Yes, but dont you think that would upset him? Hes lost enough as it is, my dear.
I suppose youre right. But I wish you wouldnt go around asking for favors for me.
Lord Robert offered, he said as he handed her a glass and then raised his own.
But why bother him at the house, Louis? She asked as she ran her finger along the lip of the glass, knowing there was more to this story than he was telling.
He smiled at her, his bright green eyes glinting with mischief as he took a sip of the wine. I brought him a letter from Borus.
Torrie nearly dropped her drink. Louis! Theyve hung men for less! What were you thinking? You know the law!
The law about traitors most certainly doesnt apply to BorusI can personally vouch for him. Besides, no one will ever know because Salome sent it directly to me with some other documents by bird early this morning. There was no harm, and if youll pardon the pun, no foul.
She sighed before asking, Was anyone else home?
I only saw Lord Robert and Jared.
She took a sip of the wine, and then replaced the glass on the table. I hope Jared didnt see the note. Hes awfully sore at his brother. When I was living in that house, he never said anything nice about Borus.
I know they dont get along, but I doubt hed turn on his own family.
She shrugged, He seemed to resent me the moment I moved in, but then, Ive noticed hes that way with everyone. Its a wonder his wife can put up with him.
Perhaps she overlooks his flaws in favor of his large inheritance?
Maybe, but I dont think any amount of money would be worth being married to such an arrogant man.
He smiled at her as he put his glass down and draped an arm over her shoulders, ready to change the subject from the Redrums. How are you doing with the children? Is there anything you need me to do?
She curled into his embrace. I honestly dont know how Chris does it. They have so much energy. I took them to the market this morning and almost lost track of Ryan.
He laughed and then nuzzled her cheek. Youll do fine, Im sure.
You have such confidence in me, she said as she pressed her nose to his with a giggle.
Louis brushed her dark curls out of her face with a smile. Your courage is one of the many things I adore about you, my dear.
She leaned in and gave him a tender, teasing touch on the lips, which begged for something more valiant and romantic. He obliged her, wrapping his arms around her neck to pull her closer, and pressing his lips to hers in a passionate, blissful kiss. For many long sensual moments they caressed, simply lost in each others touch.
Then, just as his hand curled around one of her breasts, and was about to venture to the buttons on the bodice of her dress, a noise from behind him caused her to break the kiss, open her eyes, and look up. There she spotted Geoffrey, standing in the hallway and giggling hysterically. Looking down to be sure her garment was still intact, and satisfied that it was, she whispered in her confused lovers ear, Were being watched.
Louis glanced over his shoulder, his face flushed red. He gave a sheepish smile to the little blond boy, who just laughed at them. Knowing this would be the end of it, just as things got interesting, he decided to make the best of the situation. He gave Torrie a peck on the cheek before whispering, Ah, he thinks were funny. Lets make him laugh some more.
She grinned back at him, and the two of them made a show of giving each other a farcical kiss, just to watch the childs reaction.
Wide-eyed with fascination at the behavior of the two adults, the small boy called towards the spare bedroom. Ryan! Theyre kissing! Like Mommy and Daddy!
His brother approached him, and grabbed his arm, without even looking at the flamboyant display of affection going on in the living room. Come on! Were supposed to be in bed.
The younger boy just pointed at the now-grinning couple and laughed some more.
Leave Torrie alone with her beau, Ryan said as he pulled his brothers sleeve. She doesnt need you watching her.
Geoffrey protested as he was led away. Thats not a beau. Thats just Mommys friend Louis.
Ryan shook his head at the younger boys ignorance, and practically dragged him back to the bedroom. You dont get it, Geoff. Ill explain when youre older.
After three days of riding, Karaya finally came into view just as night consumed the silence of the plains. Torches set around the camp illuminated the nomadic village, giving the animal skins that constructed the homes a ferocious glow. Thatched reeds sealed with dry mud strengthened the roofs, and large, brightly colored banners adorned the buildings, proclaiming the symbols of the families that occupied them.
Taking a deep breath as he faced the nightmare that chased him every time he slept, Borus dismounted and approached the two warriors standing guard at the front of village. Chris did the same, and gave her escort a look of encouragement.
The guards were barely adults, but still appeared to be capable warriors. At the sight of the two knights, the males eyes hardened and he muttered something to his female counterpart in both his native language and the more commonly used one. Through the exchange, Chris caught a few words that were definitely intended for her to hear and understand. Legend. Fire. Silver. Butcher. Turning to Borus, whose shoulders slumped at their conversation, the boy asked sternly, as he and the girl gripped their bows, What is your business here?
Borus said, We come to speak to Flame Champion Hugo.
Our Chief is unavailable, was the quick and firm response from the female.
May we see him in the morning? Borus asked.
No. He is unavailable then as well, said the boy with stern glare. And for Zexen Knights, hell never be available.
There has been a treaty between our Council and your tribe for a decade. As you can see, we are not wearing armor, or acting in any official capacity.
You are carrying weapons, the boy growled.
For protection on the plains only. We will leave them here if youd prefer, Chris said as she stepped up to stand with her friend.
Borus gave her an incredulous look, but said nothing.
The girl reached into her quiver. You two are not welcome here and if you dont leave immediately, well kill you for trying to invade our camp.
Again, were not invading, Chris said quietly. Will you please just tell Hugo or Lucia that we are here? We neednt come into your village. We only have a question and then well be on our way.
The boy nocked an arrow to his bow, and pointed it at Borus, his voice straining against his rising fury, and his hands shaking with rage and nerves. They are not leaving alive, Kirea! I will be a hero when I kill the man who murdered my mother!
Youre sure its him, Arie? The girl asked as she drew back and pointed her weapon at Chris.
Arie was screaming something in Karayan, but Borus did not move nor reach for his blade. He simply kept his eyes fixed on the boy, as if ready to accept his fate. The arrow was let fly, but the boys anxiety caused a bad shot. It sailed over Borus shoulder and landed a good distance behind him.
After shouting back to her counterpart words that could not be understood, Kirea turned to Chris. Remove your weapon and get on your knees! I will slay the Silver Maiden whose Dogs rained down the Fire and let her Golden Wolf feast upon innocent people!
Chris sighed as she followed the orders and looked up at the agitated boy and girl. There was so much rage in their souls, justified or not, that she wanted to apologize for what had happened during the war. Glancing over at Borus, she could tell by the way he hung his head that his portrayal as a predator in tribal lore was strangling him.
As she felt the moisture of the damp earth seep through her pants and tingle her knees, Chris heard Arie yelling at Borus to drop his sword, but the knight shook his head.
I said drop it! The boy screamed as he reached for another arrow.
I wont let you kill Chris, Borus growled as he tightened his grip on his weapon. Kill me if you want, but dont you dare touch her.
Borus, Chris pleaded with her friend. Just do as they ask. She looked back at the Karayans with resilience in her eyes. They know it will be dishonorable to their family and tribe if they kill us in cold blood.
Kirea ignored the warning and positioned herself to bury an arrow of revenge in the womans chest.
No! Borus yelled as he drew his blade and began to advance upon the pair, in the hopes of distracting them long enough for Chris to come to her senses and pick up her weapon. They may just look like children, but they are willing to slay us!
Chris did not close her eyes as the bow was pulled back, and just said calmly, I know Karayan warriors have more respect for life than this.
Borus shook his head at the idiocy of the situation and started to dart in front of his fellow knight, when a familiar female voice shouted, Arie and Kirea! What is going on?
Through the darkness, a proud woman became visible. Dressed in the traditional style of the Karayans, her blonde hair showed no signs of gray despite her middle age. Creases of motherly worry and frustration had ribboned her face, but certainly not in a way that would detract from her natural beauty. She gave a smirk at the knights before holding a hand up to a group that was following her. Hello again, Chris. Its been awhile.
Have you come to pay us a social call? The Karayan asked, putting a hand on her hip, and glaring at the two young guards, who reluctantly lowered their weapons.
No, Chris answered as she stood up and retrieved her weapon. I have come for your counsel and to see Hugo as well.
My son is at a meeting of the Six Clans, but I will do my best in his stead. The older woman laughed as her eyes walked over Borus. I had heard that you followed my advice. Im glad to know it was not wasted!
As he sheathed his sword Borus whispered to his fellow knight, What the hell is she talking about?
Chris grinned at her friend, Never mind.
Lucia smiled at the two of them. It is late, Silver Maiden. If you seek my counsel, you will need to wait until morning. We have no inn, but since you were once an ally, I will offer you a room in my home.
Thank you, Chris said with a slight bow of her head. We will accept your gracious offer.
Arie and Kirea will care for your horses, Lucia ordered, giving a stern look to the two. Its the least they can do to make up for their unfriendly greeting.
The young warriors took the horses, each one giving the knights a measured look of disgust for getting them reprimanded. Chris and Borus followed Lucia to her home, which was the largest structure in the village. They passed many people who clearly had the same feelings that the two guards did, but no one dared to say anything. Friends of the village Chief, no matter how undesirable, were to be treated well.
Lucia guided the pair into her home, and pulled a drape aside to reveal their quarters before bidding them goodnight. The room was tiny, and barely concealed from the rest of the house, which smelled of incense and roasted meat. There was one large stuffed bearskin with a colorful, handmade blanket on the floor for a bed A matching one was suspended across the ceiling to protect from drafts, but no other furniture save a small carved pot in the corner.
Chris quickly removed her weapon, leathers, and boots to sit down on the strange animal mattress. Pulling her hair out of its plait, she reached into her pack for the one luxury she allowed herselfa brush.
Borus looked incredibly uncomfortable. Chris, Ill go sleep outside.
You cant refuse Lucias hospitality, she said gently as she tugged at her tresses. What are you afraid of?
Dont you think this isinappropriate? He asked as he pointed to the single bed that still sported the head of the animal.
She placed the brush back in her pack and lay back on the bearskin. It was much different than she was used to, but the fur was remarkably soft. It smelled of the earth, but not in an offensive way. I slept next to you the last two nights, Borus, and many times before that.
He removed his weapon belt, but did not let it out of his grasp. In a camp, Chris. In a different bedroll.
Cuddling into the unusual bed, she gave a yawn, and then spoke without even looking at him. Borus, I trust you. Now get some sleep because were going to have to get up early tomorrow.
He relented, but only after he was sure she was asleep. Trying not to look at her, for fear of old desires creeping up on him, he slipped down onto animal skin in the hopes of being able to find some rest between the cursed village and the beautiful woman sleeping next to him. After many long minutes had passed, and he had all but memorized the pattern of the ceiling drape, he granted himself a moment to stare at her in peaceful repose. One thought held in his mind as his eyes traced the shape of her body in the poorly lit room, Percival, you better know just how lucky you are