“Demonsouled” Excerpt

Download it for free at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

Chapter I

1

The Jongleur at the Inn

 

Mazael Cravenlock saw the apple trees and smiled.

He put spurs to his horse, a sturdy old gray palfrey named Mantle, and rode for the trees, ignoring Gerald’s cry of protest. The setting sun painted the grass a deep crimson, and the hot, dry wind of the Marches tugged at Mazael’s cloak and whipped at his face, but he was used to it. He had grown up here, after all.

The apple trees rose at the shore of a clear pond, encircled by a low stone wall. Nearby stood a crumbling brick chimney and some foundation stones, all that remained of a small peasant house. The inhabitants of that house had likely been killed fifteen years past during Lord Richard Mandragon’s uprising against Lord Adalon Cravenlock. No one had claimed the land since then, to judge from the tall grass covering the old foundation.

Mazael steered Mantle through the low wall’s fallen gate and reined up beneath a tree. The apples hung heavy and red from their blossoms, and he plucked one with a gloved hand and took a bite.

“Sir Mazael!”

Mazael turned his saddle, chewing, and watched Sir Gerald Roland and his squire Wesson ride through the ruined gate. Gerald had inherited the aquiline features, blue eyes, and muscular body of his father. His shoulder-length hair shone like gold, and he had recently grown a mustache that he attended with the fanaticism of an Cirstarcian monk. Gerald was not wearing any armor – Mazael could have thrown his dagger and killed Gerald before the younger man could react.

Instead, Mazael reached up and took another apple. “Hungry?”

“Certainly.” Mazael tossed the apple. Gerald cut it in half with his dagger, taking half for himself, and feeding the other to his horse. “Wesson, would you care for an apple?”

“No, Sir Gerald,” said Wesson, a pimpled youth of eleven. “I am not hungry.”

“Pity,” said Mazael. A single sure sword stroke would kill Wesson. “Never pass up a chance for an apple, my boy.”

Gerald snorted. “Never pass up a chance for fresh food, you mean. An opinion I wholly favor after all these travel rations, but I could never understand why you were so mad for apples. I prefer pears, myself.”

Mazael flicked the core aside, and picked another apple for Mantle. “I might tell you someday.” The sun’s setting rays caught in the pond, and for a moment the water resembled blood. Mazael shook off the thought.

“Shall we stop here for the night?” said Gerald.

“No,” said Mazael. “There’s an inn two miles east of here, just before the Northwater bridge. We can get there before dark.”

Gerald laughed. “Are you in such a hurry to reach your brother’s castle?  You gave me to understand that you’d rather be elsewhere.”

“No, I’m in a hurry to have a bed and a hot meal. Fresh food is fine, but hot food is far better.” Mantle finished the apple, and Mazael turned the palfrey around and rode back to the road and their other animals. Mazael and Gerald’s war horses stood grazing alongside a pair of pack mules laden with their supplies and armor. Wesson took the animals in hand and followed the two knights as they rode eastward.

“I would rather be elsewhere,” said Mazael, “but since I am here, I would prefer to be within castle walls. I have no great eagerness to see my brother, but should war come, I’d rather be inside Castle Cravenlock than out in the open.”

“We should have brought more men, as Father wished,” said Gerald. “With two or three hundred armsmen as escorts, attack would not trouble us.”

Mazael snorted. “Yes, three hundred men with the banner of the Rolands flapping overhead? That would have drawn the eyes of every man from Knightcastle to Swordgrim. And how do you suppose Lord Richard Mandragon would react if he knew that Lord Malden Roland’s youngest son had brought an army to the Lord of Castle Cravenlock?”

Gerald fell silent for a moment. “Do you really think it will come to war?”

“I doubt it,” said Mazael. “Mitor’s a fool, but a slug as well. He’s too much a coward to rouse himself against the likes of Richard Mandragon the Dragonslayer.”

“I hope you are right. I have seen enough of war,” said Gerald.

Mazael nodded. He had fought alongside Gerald when Lord Malden had invaded Mastaria. They had survived the bloody battles of Deep Creek, Castle Cateron, and the Siege of Tumblestone. The slaughter had sickened Mazael, yet some part of him had found it beautiful. He had relished the fighting, reveled in it. No enemy, common soldier or Knight Dominiar, could stand against him, and he had danced laughing through their bloody blades.

“I wouldn’t worry,” said Mazael. “Mitor might hate Lord Richard, but Lord Richard terrifies Mitor. And all anyone has heard are rumors of mercenaries and bandits. Most likely Mitor is simply hiring whores.” Mazael laughed.

Gerald frowned. Lord Malden Roland’s youngest son had a pious streak that Mazael often found wearisome. Yet the young knight was the best friend Mazael had made since leaving Castle Cravenlock, and Gerald was one of only four people to whom Mazael would entrust his life.

“I see lights up ahead,” said Gerald.

Mazael saw the lights, and heard the rush of water. “The inn, most likely. At least, there was an inn here fifteen years ago. Just past that is the Northwater bridge, and then it’s only another three days to Castle Cravenlock.”

“Finally,” said Gerald.

Full dark fell by the time they reached the inn. It had changed little from what Mazael remembered. A high wall of sharpened wooden logs surrounded the rambling stone building, and torches burned in scones atop the wooden palisade, casting a circle of light around the wall. A pair of crossbow-armed mercenaries stood guard before the crude gate.

Mazael could have killed them both before they reacted.

He reined up instead. “Ho, the inn!”

The mercenaries trained their crossbows in Mazael’s direction. “Who’re you, and what’s your business?” said a mercenary with a broken nose and a shading of beard stubble.

“A traveler,” said Mazael, “and my business is with a bed, hot food, ale, and a whore.” Gerald frowned, while Wesson looked intrigued.

“You’ve the look of knights,” said the mercenary. “Pardon the questions, sirs, but in these dangerous times the innkeeper’s hired us to keep peace.”

“That so?” said Mazael. “Danger from what?”

“People have been disappearing near Lord Mitor’s castle. It’s the wood elves, I say,” said the mercenary, making the sign to ward off evil. “Lord Richard has stirred them up to make war on Lord Mitor. I’ve even heard tell that Lord Richard treats with dark powers, and has the Old Demon himself as an adviser.”

“No,” said the second mercenary. “It’s the barbarians, come down out of the mountains. They’re the ones behind this. Lord Richard will raise his vassals and that black-hearted son of his, and smash them the way he smashes everyone who crosses him.”

“Such fine tales,” said Mazael. He flipped them a copper coin. “Tell them in the common room and you might get a few more coins.”

The mercenaries laughed, but Mazael heard the unease in their voices. “Aye, so we might, but everyone in these parts tell the same tales. People have been disappearing, and it’s the work of those wood devils, taking them off for their dark rituals.”

“No, it’s the barbarians,” said the other mercenary. “They eat babies, my grandfather told me so when I was a lad.”

“I don’t care if it’s the Old Demon and a troop of barbarians sacrificing people to the god of serpents,” said Mazael. “I want my ale, my bed, and my food.”

“Very well, milord,” said the first mercenary. “Make no trouble, and we’ll make no trouble for you.”

Mazael nodded. He rode through the gate, Gerald and Wesson behind him.

“Do you think it’s true?” said Gerald. “Peasants have been disappearing?”

Mazael shrugged. “Perhaps, or perhaps not. Most likely Mitor has ordered virgins kidnapped for his bed.”

The two knights dismounted, and Wesson received the task of stabling the mounts and carrying the armor and weapons into their room. Mazael did not remember his own years as a squire with any fondness. He pushed open the inn’s door and stepped inside.

The common room was crowded with mercenaries and landless knights. Many looked drunk, and specks of fresh blood marked the floor. A bartender and a half-dozen serving girls hurried back and forth to the kitchen. Mazael marked some of the prettier ones.

A man playing a harp stood atop a stage against the far wall. The jongleur wore simple clothes for one of his craft, plain boots and trousers and a tunic. Gray shot through his black hair and beard, and a hooked nose rested above his smiling lips. Mazael frowned, thought he recognized the man for a moment, then brushed away the odd feeling.

The bartender came over. “What’ll it be, my lords?”

“A room, and food for three,” said Mazael.

The bartender licked his lips. He squirmed beneath Mazael’s gaze, something people often did. “First room at the top of the stairs. As for food, I’ve got a few joints of beef left, and some fresh bread…”

“That will be fine,” said Mazael. He left some copper coins on the bar and went to find Gerald. Wesson lurched through the door, bearing an armful of armor. Mazael directed him to their room, and the boy clambered up the steps, huffing.

Gerald had claimed a table near the jongleur’s stage, and Mazael joined him.

“Look at this place,” said Gerald. “It’s packed full of mercenaries and ruffians of every stripe, and they are all making for Castle Cravenlock. It seems the rumors of your brother hiring men are true after all.”

“I wonder why,” said Mazael. “Castle Cravenlock can only raise four thousand knights and armsmen. Swordgrim can raise eight thousand, and Lord Richard can call ten thousand more. If Mitor thinks to use this rabble to stand against the likes of Lord Richard, well, then he’s a bigger fool than I thought.”

“Perhaps he’s hired them for use against the wood elves,” suggested Gerald with a laugh.

Mazael snorted. “What, the Elderborn? Hardly. They wouldn’t venture out unless Mitor devoted himself to burning down the Great Southern Forest. Besides, the Elderborn would cut through this lot,” he gestured, taking in the mercenaries, “faster than even the Dragonslayer.”

“I was joking,” said Gerald. “Elderborn are a children’s fable, like faeries and Demonsouled…you’re not joking?”

“No,” said Mazael. Wesson descended the stairs and sat at the table, panting.

The jongleur ran his fingers over his harp and began another song.

 

“Heart of darkness, soul of sin,

a murderer’s bloody grin.

So came the boy to his fate,

dark son of a demon great.”

 

The crowd’s boisterous enthusiasm dampened. “The Song of the Demon Child” was not often sung in busy inns.

“I say, I detest that song,” said Gerald.

Mazael looked up at the jongleur. “Why is that?” The jongleur’s gray eyes gleamed keen and intent, his fingers dancing over the harp in accompaniment to his deep, rich voice.

“Father Marion would always recite a few verses when he saw me, citing the fate of wicked children,” said Gerald.

 

“The child met his dark father,

before the church’s altar.

‘My dark child,’ said the demon.

‘Your glory has now begun.’”

 

“I hope you didn’t let it bother you,” said Mazael. “Most priests couldn’t find their manhood with both hands.”

Gerald frowned. “That’s hardly an appropriate example to set for Wesson.”

Mazael shrugged. “If he wants to take a vow of chastity, let him become a monk.”

 

“‘Your demon soul has power,

curse the gods, curse Amater.

Take that which is your dark right.

Spurn heaven; claim your demon might!’”

 

“Sing something else!” someone shouted. Others took up the cry.

The jongleur stopped. “My apologies, good sirs!” he called out, smiling. “What shall I sing for you instead?  ‘The Song of the Serpents’, perhaps, or ‘The Fall of Tristafel’?”

“What’s this, a funeral?” yelled a drunken voice. “Sing something good!  ‘The Virgin with Five Veils’!” The jongleur took a flourishing bow and began to sing. “There was a girl with raven hair and the curves of a goddess…

“What a morbid fellow,” said Gerald. “It’s a wonder he’s able to earn his bread. ‘The Song of the Demon Child’ and ‘The Fall of Tristafel’ indeed!  I’ve never heard ‘The Song of the Serpents’, though. Probably some dreadful story of demons, to judge from this fellow’s tastes.”

“No,” said Mazael. “Snakes. It tells how the god of the serpent people rebelled against heaven, and in punishment the other gods took the arms and legs from the serpents and made them crawl through the dust.”

Gerald shuddered. He hated snakes. “Gods be praised, the food is here.”

A plump pretty barmaid in a tightly laced dress gave them their food. Gerald thanked the woman. Mazael sent her off with a silver coin and a pinch on the bottom, earning a frown from Gerald. The jongleur continued “The Virgin with Five Veils” and soon had the mercenaries roaring along to the song. “The virgin girl danced and giggled, her body bounced and jiggled…”

Gerald admonished his squire against such revels. Mazael downed his ale and called for another.

The jongleur finished his song to thunderous applause as a storm of copper coins rained upon the stage.

“Another song!” called out a man.

“Grant me a short rest first, my generous friends!” said the jongleur, sweeping up the coins. “For you all have mighty voices, and I fear I shall ruin mine if I dared compete!” The assembled ruffians laughed and went back to their drinking. Mazael took a drink of ale to wash down some beef, draining half the tankard in three big gulps.

When he looked up, the jongleur stood over their table, a smile on his bearded face. “Pardon, my lords…but have we met before?”

Mazael frowned. “No, I don’t think so.”

“But…are you not Sir Mazael Cravenlock, my lord?  And is your companion not Sir Gerald Roland?” said the jongleur.

Mazael’s teeth clenched. He had wanted to reach Castle Cravenlock unseen. “How do you know who I am?” A quick dagger thrust between the ribs could kill the jongleur…

The jongleur tapped a finger against his jaw. “It…was at an inn in Mastaria, I believe, during Sir Mandor Roland’s march against Castle Dominus. A village called Deep Creek, as I recall…”

Mazael frowned. “I remember!  It was the night before the battle. That fool Sir Mandor—pardons, Gerald, but he was—spent the night celebrating at the inn. You were the jongleur he had brought from Deep Creek for his entertainment.”

“I remember now,” said Gerald.

The jongleur smiled and executed a florid bow. “Mattias Comorian, a simple musician, at your service.”

“How did you come to be here?” said Mazael, indicating for Mattias to take a seat. “Mastaria is on the other side of the kingdom. I had thought most the villagers of Deep Creek slain in the battle.”

“Most were,” said Mattias. “I suspected that ill fortune would soon fall upon Sir Mandor. I slipped away after the noble knight had gone to bed. Not long after, the Knights Dominiar struck. I watched the slaughter for a while, then escaped to the north.” He paused. “Did Sir Mandor chance to survive?”

“No,” said Gerald. A shadow crossed his face. “He…ah, rose, and rallied the defenders, but he was wounded, and died soon after.” Mazael concealed his contempt. Mandor had lain snoring in bed when the Dominiars attacked, and Gerald’s older brother caught two arrows in the gut and another in the leg. Mandor died three days later, weeping and feverish, as the remnants of his army straggled north.

“Ah,” said Mattias, sipping at his ale. “My deepest condolences, my lord knight. At any rate, Lord Malden – and Sir Mazael here, I might add – prevailed over the Dominiars, and I resumed my wanderings. I visited Swordor, and spent some time in Redwater and Ravenmark shortly before the old Lord of Ravenmark disappeared. I performed in the Crown Prince’s great city of Barellion for a time, and fortunately left before those riots burned down half the city. Dreadful, that. Then I traveled across the Green Plain during the succession struggle, and just in the last year made my way to the Grim Marches.”

“Quite a journey,” said Gerald.

Mattias laughed. His gray eyes glittered. “Ah, my lord knight, it is nothing. In my time, I have visited half the world, I fear.”

“You seem to have had singular bad luck in your travels,” said Mazael. “The war in Mastaria, the succession troubles in the Green Plain, the uprising in Barellion…why, it’s as if troubles sprout where you walk.”

“I pity I cannot make wheat and barley sprout where I walk,” said Mattias, grinning. “Why, the lords of the Green Plain would shower me with riches to tramp about their fields, and I never would need work again.”

Mazael and Gerald laughed. Wesson even smiled a little.

“And now, it seems, my bad luck has struck again,” said Mattias. “Rumors of war sprout in the Grim Marches.”

Mazael grimaced. “You must hear more than most. All we’ve heard are peasants’ gossip, each word more outrageous than the last.”

Mattias laughed. “I fear knowledgeable peasants are as numerous as flying sheep, my lord. Every mercenary in the kingdom is making for Castle Cravenlock. The rumors say that Lord Mitor plans to rise against Lord Richard, the way the Dragonslayer rose against old Lord Adalon.” Mattias frowned and continued. “Those living near the Great Forest claim that the Elderborn—” Mazael thought it odd that a jongleur would use the wood elves’ proper name, “—plan to march from their forest and take bloody vengeance. And the closer you get to Castle Cravenlock, my lord, the wilder the rumors get. I met a peasant who swore that a malicious wizard was stirring up trouble. I have heard tales of ghosts rising from graveyards, and of snake-cults worshipping in cellars.” Mattias snorted. “To believe these fools, you’d think that the Old Demon himself haunted the Grim Marches.”

“Aye, well, my father sent us as his emissaries,” said Gerald. “I know not what is happening, but with the gods’ blessing, we can end these disturbances without bloodshed.”

Mattias sighed and rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard. “Ah, your hope warms my heart, my young lord, but I know otherwise. When lords quarrel, the law is set aside in favor of swords. You know those peculiar blood roses that bloom in the Grim Marches?  Well, the peasants say that only blood can irrigate those flowers, and we’ll have blood roses as far as the eye can see before this business is done.”

Mazael blinked. For a moment, it seemed as if he could see blood; not drops or pools, or even streams, but a sea of blood stretching as far as his eye could survey. He blinked again and shook away the disturbing vision.

“What makes you say that?” he said at last.

“Your family, my lord knight, and the Mandragons have hated each other for centuries,” said Mattias. “Every child in the Grim Marches knows as much. Should it come to war, and I do hope that it does not, these proud lords will settle their differences with arms, not words.”

“We’ll not know until we try,” said Gerald, crossing his arms, “and I am determined that we shall try.”

Mattias smiled. “Ah, forgive me, for I am an old, old man, and I have forgotten the hopes of youth. I wish you the best of luck, my young lord, and hope all goes well with you.”

“If the gods will it,” said Gerald.

Mattias’s eyes glinted. “I find, my lord, that the gods favor those who make their own luck. In that spirit, let me pass along a tidbit of news to you. Sir Tanam Crowley is in the area.”

“Sir Tanam Crowley?” said Gerald. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“I have,” said Mazael. “He’s Lord Richard’s most trusted vassal. When the Mandragons rose against my father, Sir Tanam was the first to join the Dragonslayer.”

“Indeed,” said Mattias. “And Sir Tanam would like to make the youngest son of Lord Malden and Lord Mitor’s brother his master’s …enforced guests, no?”

Gerald’s tankard slammed down on the table. “Is that a threat? Are you asking us to buy your silence?”

Mattias spread his hands. “You wound me, my lord knight!  I might believe that war is coming, but that does not mean I do not wish for peace!  Lords have markedly short tempers in war, I fear, and an incautious jongleur might find himself shorter by a head.”

“Very well,” said Gerald. “I trust you’ll not spread news of our meeting?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mazael. “He could shout our names from the rooftops. If there’s trouble between here and Castle Cravenlock, it’ll find us one way or another.”

“Then once this business has blown over,” said Mattias, “I can tell my grandchildren that I spoke with two knights of the mighty noble houses of Roland and Cravenlock.”

“You don’t look that old,” said Gerald. “You have grandchildren?”

“Oh, yes,” said Mattias. His eyes sparkled with mirth. “Many, in fact.”

“Jongleur!” bellowed a mercenary in a boiled leather breastplate and dirty furs. “More music, I say, more music!” The crowd took up the cry. The assembled freebooters roared for music.

“Ah, duty calls,” said Mattias. “I must say, it was a pleasure speaking with you. It is good to know that someone survived the carnage at Deep Creek.”

“You as well,” said Gerald. Mazael nodded.

Mattias Comorian hopped back onto the stage and strummed the strings of his harp. “Let us make merry, my friends, for the past is gone and the future is dark, and all we have is today!” He pointed into the crowd. “You sir, you have a drum, and you, yes, you with the lute. Come up here, my friends, and let us make music for dancing!” The two men climbed onto the stage. Men shoved aside tables and chairs to make room. Mazael saw a good number of peasant girls from the local farms. The girls eyed the mercenaries, the mercenaries eyed the girls, and Mazael supposed that many of the girls would lose their virtue tonight in the grass behind the inn or in the hay of the stables. He hoped they stayed away from his horses.

Mattias and his conscripted musicians struck up a lively tune. The drunken mercenaries and the farm girls began to dance. Gerald looked intrigued, to Mazael’s surprise. The pious knight rarely enjoyed himself. Perhaps tonight would become a first.

“I say, Mazael, I believe I will indulge,” said Gerald. He stood and frowned. “Aren’t you coming?”

Mazael waved a hand at him. “Go. I think I will retire early.”

Gerald laughed. “You’re joking. You were so eager to find a whore earlier. You might not need to. That girl, the one with the brown eyes? She has been staring at you since she came in.”

“Maybe later,” said Mazael. Gerald shrugged and joined the dance, Wesson following his master.

Mazael finished his ale and felt the drink warm his insides. For a moment he considered joining the dance, perhaps finding a willing girl for later, but brushed the notion aside. He felt tired and sick. Maybe the food had been bad. If so, the innkeeper would regret it.

Mazael climbed the stairs, leaving the dance behind, and pushed open the door to their room. Wesson had piled their armor and supplies in the corner, and a single narrow bed rested under the window.

He shut the door behind him, undid his sword belt, and claimed the bed. Gerald and Wesson could have the floor.

“See, Gerald?” he muttered. “You’re right. There are rewards for virtue. I get the bed and you don’t.”

2

Mazael Meets Sir Tanam Crowley

 

Mazael open his eyes, saw the sun’s first rays painting the wall. Wesson lay on the floor, snoring. There was no sign of Gerald. Perhaps Lord Malden’s youngest son had overcome his inhibitions.

Mazael found the chamber pot, relieved himself, and pulled on his boots. Then he picked up his sword belt and buckled it about his waist. A small mirror hung on the wall over the bed, and Mazael drew his sword and stared into the mirror.

Sunlight glimmered off the razor edge of his blade and danced off the golden hilt. The sword’s pommel was a golden lion’s head with ruby eyes and a roaring mouth. For four years now, Mazael had carried this blade, after Sir Commander Aeternis of the Knights Dominiar had offered it up in surrender. Mazael had named it Lion and carried it at his side ever since.

Mazael sheathed the blade and tapped the squire with his boot. “Get our armor and supplies ready. I want to leave within the hour. I’ll find Sir Gerald.” Wesson sighed and got to work.

Mazael stepped out into the hall, the floorboards creaking beneath his boots, but otherwise the inn was quiet. No doubt the mercenaries were sleeping off hangovers.  A man lay facedown in the hallway, snoring, his trousers gone.

“Watch for splinters, friend,” muttered Mazael.

He found Gerald sprawled in a bed three rooms over, tangled with the blankets. No one was with him, so far as Mazael could see. Mazael shook Gerald’s shoulder. Mazael shook his shoulder, and when Gerald did not respond, he reached down and pinched the younger knight’s nose shut.

Gerald came awake with a snort. “Gods, what …blast it all, Mazael, how many times have I asked you not to do that?”

“You sleep like a stone,” said Mazael. He grinned. “What did I tell you, when you were a squire? Sleep too deeply, and someone might make sure you never wake.”

Gerald didn’t answer. He rubbed his eyes, groaning. “Ah, the light!  And my head!” His eyes bulged and he sat bolt upright. “Where …my clothes …oh, gods in heaven, what did I do?”

“Had a good time, from the looks of things,” said Mazael.

“I don’t remember!” said Gerald.

“A ripping good time, then,” said Mazael.

“I have sinned!” said Gerald. “I have dishonored myself…I could have deflowered some virtuous young maid…oh, I must do penance…”

“I doubt it,” said Mazael. “You get weepy when you’re drunk, not lecherous. Now get up, get dressed, and get your gear. I want to get over the Northwater bridge and past the village of White Rock today.”

Gerald nodded and climbed out of bed. “I shall never drink so much again.”

“It’s usually a good idea to stop after a while,” said Mazael.

“I shall take a vow to abstain from spirits for the rest of my days!”

“Don’t overdo it.”

Mazael returned to his room and looked out the window. It faced to the east, and he saw the steep gully of the Northwater. A wide wooden bridge crossed the river here, the only crossing for a day in either direction.

The perfect spot for an ambush, come to think of it.

“Help me with my armor, Wesson,” said Mazael.

Mazael wore light armor for a knight. He could move much faster than most men, and heavy armor only slowed him down. He wore a mail hauberk with a breastplate that had seen much use, steel plates for his shoulders, bracers for his forearms, and leather gauntlets backed wth steel disks. His helmet was the style used by the foot soldiers of ancient Tristafel, with an open face and metal flaps to protect the ears and jaw.

Gerald came in as Mazael redid his sword belt. Despite his hangover, Gerald had managed to shave, trim his mustache, and style his hair. “You’re armoring yourself? Why?”

Mazael hefted a heavy war hammer with a black steel head and an oaken haft. He had taken the hammer from a dead Knight Dominiar after Sir Commander Aeternis’s defeat. Sharp as it was, Lion could not cut through solid steel plate. The Mastarian hammer did an admirable job of crushing armor and smashing bone in one solid swing.

“Caution,” Mazael said. He slung the hammer over his shoulder. “With all these mercenaries streaming towards Castle Cravenlock, more than a few might decide to go bandit.”

“True,” said Sir Gerald. “Wesson! My armor!”

Unlike Mazael’s battle-scarred armor, Gerald’s armor gleamed with a mirror shine. Gerald wore a steel breastplate and chain hauberk, a mail coif, and a conical helm. Gauntlets of steel plate protected his hands, and he attached steel greaves to his legs. Over his armor he wore a blue surcoat with the gray greathelm sigil of the Rolands. His sword, a dagger, and a mace crowned with the greathelm of Roland hung from his belt. Wesson received the unenviable task of carrying Sir Gerald’s heavy oak shield.

“I say, you should fight with a shield,” said Gerald.

“Slows you down,” said Mazael. He glanced out the window.

“Yes, but better to be slow than dead. Sooner or later, some screaming fool will come at you with an axe. What will you do then?” Gerald frowned. “Mazael, what are you looking at?”

A great plume of dust rose to the east. After a moment, he saw a column of riders cross the bridge – thirty of them, at least. The lead rider carried a banner, and a woman shared his saddle.

“Riders,” Mazael said. “They’re coming this way.”

“Those are armored lancers,” said Gerald, and his eyes widened. “That’s the Dragonslayer’s banner.”

The banner of the Mandragons, a black dragon on a red background, flapped from the lead rider’s lance. Beneath it flew a smaller banner, depicting a crow perched on a gray rock against a field of green.

“And that’s Sir Tanam Crowley’s banner,” said Mazael. The lead riders thundered into the inn’s courtyard and reined up, sweat lathering their horses.

“What do you suppose they’re doing here?” said Gerald. “And at this hour in the morning?  From the look of those horses, they must have been riding all night!”

Mazael spotted Sir Tanam as the knight slid off his horse. His narrow features and long nose had earned him the nickname “the Old Crow”. Two of Crowley’s men lifted the woman from the saddle. She wore an elegant riding gown, yet her wrists had been bound and a hood pulled over her face.

“I suspect a great many of our questions will be answered in the next few minutes,” said Gerald.

“Take off your surcoat,” said Mazael.

“What?”

“Do it!” said Mazael. “That prisoner has the look of a noblewoman. If Lord Richard sent the Old Crow to kidnap her, what do you think he’ll do with one of Malden Roland’s sons?”

Gerald nodded, pulled off his surcoat, and kicked it under the bed. Mazael heard the door to the inn bang open, followed by heavy footsteps thudding up the stairs. His hand curled around Lion’s hilt. “We may need to make a run for it.”

A moment later an armored man, wearing a surcoat quartered with the black dragon of Mandragon and the crow of Crowley, peered into their room. “If you’re fighting men, make your way to the common room at once. Sir Tanam Crowley is hiring, and you’ll have the chance to make some gold.”

Mazael and Gerald nodded. The armsman moved down the hall, banging on doors and awakening slumbering mercenaries.

“Maybe that’s why Sir Tanam is here,” said Mazael, striding into the hall. “Perhaps Lord Richard sent him to hire away all of Lord Mitor’s mercenaries.”

“He could do it,” said Gerald. “Not a day passes without Father complaining about the Mandragons’ gold.”

A half-dozen sleepy mercenaries stomped past, a pair of Crowley armsmen herding them down the stairs. Mazael waited until they had passed, then gestured for Gerald and Wesson to follow him. They stopped on the landing of the stairs, overlooking the common room.

A dozen armsmen waited in the common room with as many mercenaries. Sir Tanam stood on a table, rubbing his thin nose. He had taken off his helmet, and Mazael could have killed him with a thrown dagger to the throat. Crowley’s prisoner stood behind him, two men holding her arms.

“Roger, is this all?” said Sir Tanam, his voice clipped and precise.

“Aye, sir, it is,” said a soldier.

“Very well, then,” said Tanam. He cleared his throat. “I am Sir Tanam Crowley of Crows’ Rock, vassal to Lord Richard Mandragon of Swordgrim.”

Bleary-eyed silence answered this pronouncement. Mazael leaned forward, trying to see under the prisoner’s hood.

Tanam grimaced. “Lord Richard has commanded that I make for Swordgrim with all haste, and I ask for your assistance.”

The mercenaries stared at him.

Tanam cleared his throat. “Paid assistance.”

The mercenaries smiled.

“The Mandragons are generous to those that serve them well,” said Sir Tanam. “Every man who joins me will receive three silver pieces. Every man who completes the journey to Swordgrim will receive three gold pieces.”

The mercenaries’ smiles widened, and the armsmen moved closer to Sir Tanam. The guards holding the woman shifted, turning her face towards the stairs. Mazael moved to the left, trying to see into the hood.

“We will journey with haste,” said Tanam. “I must deliver this prisoner to Swordgrim with all speed so she may face my lord’s justice. We may come under attack.”

Mazael leaned over the railing to get a better look at this prisoner destined for Lord Richard’s judgment.

The green eyes of Rachel Cravenlock, his younger sister, stared back at him from beneath the hood.

Her eyes widened as she recognized him.

Mazael jolted back from the railing. Through sheer will he kept his hand from flying to his sword.

“What is it?” whispered Gerald.

“My sister,” hissed Mazael, his voice grating. “The damn bastard has my sister.”

“Your sister?” said Gerald. “Gods, Mazael…Crowley must have kidnapped her from Castle Cravenlock. Mazael, for the love of the gods, don’t do anything foolish…”

“Just follow me,” said Mazael. He put one foot on the railing. “Sir Tanam!”

Sir Tanam looked up. “Three silvers are all I’m offering for hire. The gold will have to wait until we reach Swordgrim.”

“A question, sir knight!” said Mazael. “What crimes has your prisoner committed?”

Sir Tanam’s face darkened. “She has committed crimes against the laws of both gods and men. She has done witchcraft and practiced sorcery. Her family has …well, regardless to say, she has well-earned her fate. Might I ask, who are you?  You have the look of a knight about you. A knight-errant, perhaps?”

Mazael grinned. “Not quite. I am Sir Mazael Cravenlock. This is Sir Gerald Roland.” Gerald groaned.

Tanam’s eyes widened. “Mazael…Cravenlock?  I thought you were still in Knightcastle.” He shook his head. “Well, here you are, and for the welfare of the Grim Marches, I think you had best come with us. Sir Gerald, as well. My lord Richard would much like to speak with you.”

“I think not,” said Mazael. His blood drummed in his head, his battle instincts rising. “For your welfare you had best release my sister to my custody and go on your way.”

Tanam seemed amused. “Really, now?”

“Last chance,” said Mazael. “Let her go.”

“No,” said Tanam. “Come with us.”

“I did warn you,” said Mazael.

Lion flew from its scabbard. Mazael vaulted over the railing and landed in the midst of the Crowley soldiers, his sword blurring. Two men fell dead before they had even thought to draw their weapons. He heard Gerald’s groaned curse and the hiss of his drawn sword. Crowley’s men shouted and scrabbled for their weapons, while Sir Tanam himself bellowed commands and drew an axe from over his shoulder. The innkeeper shrieked and dove under a table, and Gerald leapt over the railing, sword and shield in hand.

Mazael drove Lion through the eye slit of a helm. The man-at-arms staggered and fell, blood gushing out of his mouth. Mazael spun and parried two quick blows, riposted, and another Crowley armsman fell dead. Blood ran red down Lion’s steel blade. Mazael danced through Crowley’s men, laughing. They all seemed to have lead weights tied about their arms and legs. Lion felt like a part of his arm, and the blood roared through his body as he sidestepped a thrust and took off an armsman’s head.

It was so easy to kill them.

Someone hit him from behind with a sword. The blade didn’t penetrate Mazael’s armor, and he used the blow for momentum. He bashed aside one man, gutted another, jumped, and landed face to face with Sir Tanam Crowley. Sir Tanam raised his axe, and Mazael jerked his sword up, bashing the lion’s head pommel across Tanam’s face. The knight fell like a dead horse, his armor clanging against the floor. The armsmen holding Rachel leapt to defend their master. Mazael killed one, wounded the other, and severed the ties holding Rachel’s hands with a single slash. She looked at him, green eyes wide, a thousand questions on her face.

“Can you run?” said Mazael.

Rachel nodded. “What…”

“Gerald!” bellowed Mazael. “Let’s go!”

Gerald ran for the door, Wesson at his heels. “By all the gods of all the heavens,” yelled Gerald. “I swear, man, you are a lunatic!” His shield had been hacked to kindling and his shiny armor bore a half-dozen scars.

Mazael laughed and kicked down the door. A half-dozen of Sir Tanam’s irate men charged after them.

The morning sun shone bright in the courtyard. A dozen more of Sir Tanam’s men sat on their horses, their expressions tense and anxious. They scowled at the sight of Mazael, hands flying to their weapons.

“We’re under attack!” said Mazael as he ran for the stables. “The Cravenlocks! The Cravenlocks came through the back of the inn!”

The horsemen galloped towards the door just as Crowley’s other men burst out. They tangled together in a confused mass as Mazael, Gerald, Wesson, and Rachel ran into the stables, hastening to saddle the horses.

“Rachel, take my palfrey,” said Mazael, vaulting into the saddle of his war horse, an ill-tempered brute named Chariot. Gerald helped Rachel into the saddle, and then mounted his own war horse, while Wesson claimed Sir Gerald’s palfrey.

“What if they try to stop us?” said Gerald.

“Ride them down,” said Mazael. Sword in one hand and hammer in the other, Mazael spurred Chariot forward. The big stallion whinnied and burst out of the stable.

Mazael heard Sir Tanam shouting, and armsmen raced towards them. Mazael hit one on the head with his hammer, while Chariot bit a second in the face. He heard the clang of Gerald’s sword and a man’s scream. Then they were through the inn’s palisade, riding hard for the Northwater bridge.

Dust churned beneath their horses’ hooves, and soon the long wooden Northwater bridge came into sight. A trio of riders waited on the bridge next to a pot of burning coals and a bundle of unlit torches. Each of the rides wore armor and bore a heavy war lance. Beneath the bridge the Northwater raged in a swirl of white foam.

“They’re going to burn the bridge!” shouted Mazael. “Ride!” He kicked Chariot to a gallop, the horse thundering forward. The riders on the bridge wheeled and dropped their lances for a charge. Mazael slung the hammer over his shoulder and snapped Chariot’s reins. A pair of the lancers made for Gerald, while one rode for Mazael.

Mazael stood up in the saddle, the lancer raising his weapon in response. At the last second, Mazael jumped off Chariot’s side. He tucked his shoulder and rolled as he hit the ground, his armor rattling. The lancer reined up, attempting to swing around to attack, but Mazael surged to his feet, Lion’s hilt in both hands, and swung. The longsword hewed the horse’s leg like wood, and the big animal went down with a scream. The lancer flew from his saddle and struck the ground, his armor clattering with the impact. Mazael was on him in an instant, his sword stabbing down for a gap in the armor.

He sprang back into Chariot’s saddle as one of the remaining lancers broke his lance against Gerald’s shield, the other circling with an axe in hand. Mazael spurred Chariot to a gallop, slammed Lion into its scabbard, and took his Mastarian war hammer in both hands.

The lancer on Gerald’s right never saw Mazael coming. Mazael whipped the hammer sideways in a looping swing. The lancer toppled off his horse, head bent at a bizarre angle. The second lancer gaped at his dead comrade long enough for Gerald to finish him.

Horses galloped from the inn as the Old Crow rallied his troops. Sir Tanam looked bloody and very angry.

“Any wounds?” said Mazael.

“No,” said Gerald. “Just bruises.”

“Good. Over the bridge, I’ll follow,” said Mazael.

“What…” said Gerald.

Mazael grinned at him. “Just go.”

Gerald sighed. “Madman.” He spurred his horse over the bridge, Rachel and Wesson riding alongside.

Mazael leaned down, snatched a torch from the bundle, and thrust it into the pot of burning coals. Then he wheeled Chariot around, galloped onto the bridge, and dropped the torch.

Evidently it had not rained in the Grim Marches for some time, because the bridge’s planks were hard and dry, and took fire at once. A wall of flame rose up behind Mazael, and Chariot whinnied and bolted to the opposite bank.

He joined Gerald and Rachel and turned Chariot around just in time to see Sir Tanam’s horse shy away from the flames. Tanam stared across the river at Mazael, his expression a mixture of frustration and astonishment.

“Sir Mazael,” said Sir Gerald. “You are insane. You could have gotten us all killed!”

Mazael grinned at him. “Yes, but it worked, didn’t it?”

Gerald sighed and looked heavenwards.

Mazael clasped his sister’s hand, careful not to squeeze with his armored gauntlet. “And you, are you all right?”

Rachel smiled at him. She had always been very pretty, and even as a child suitors had swarmed about her like flies, hoping to win her hand once she came of age. Mazael didn’t know if his sister had married or not. He had left the Grim Marches fifteen years ago, and no word had come to him since. Rachel looked much the same, but there were dark circles under her eyes, and she was very pale.

“Mitor will be upset you burned his bridge,” Rachel said at last.

“Mitor can bugger himself with the bridge,” Mazael said. “A bridge for a sister, a small price, it seems. Now, how are you?”

“I’ve been better, I’ll confess,” she said. “But, gods, Mazael, it’s so good to see you again.”

“You as well.” Mazael looked over the river. “We’d best be on our way before old Sir Crow decides to use those crossbows.”

They galloped for the east, leaving the inn and the burning bridge behind.

3

Rachel’s Apple

 

At Mazael’s insistence, they rode hard for the east all day, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. The nearest fords were a day’s ride north and south of the burned bridge, but Mazael didn’t want to risk encountering more of Lord Richard’s minions. He permitted his companions to stop long enough to water the horses, but no longer. They rode in silence. There would be time to exchange stories later.

They passed a bands of mercenaries that ranged from ragged knots of ruffians to professional companies with banners. All marched east for Castle Cravenlock. Mazael and his little band rode around them, and the mercenaries ignored them.

As the sun sank beneath the western sky, they came across one of the abandoned farmsteads that littered the Grim Marches. Only few strewn foundation stones, a pond, and an overgrown orchard remained, and Mazael pronounced the site fit for a camp. Gerald slid out of his saddle with a sigh of relief.

“Good horse,” said Mazael, patting Chariot’s flank. He undid the saddle and blanket, rubbed the horse down, checked the hooves, and gave Chariot another apple snared from the grove the day before. Chariot snorted but accepted nonetheless.

Rachel stumbled from Mazael’s palfrey. Mazael and Gerald were both accustomed to hard riding and days in the saddle, but Rachel was not, and Gerald helped her to stand. It seemed that his sister had captured another admirer. Wesson gathered wood and grass, and soon a fire crackled within the old foundation stones.

“I don’t suppose we have any of our supplies left?” said Gerald, brushing down his horse.

Mazael shook his head. “Our supplies are sitting in our room at the inn. No doubt Sir Tanam and his men are enjoying them. We’ll have to make do with whatever’s in our saddlebags. I hope the lady of Cravenlock will not be discontented with jerky and stale bread?”

Rachel laughed and sat down.  “I would rather eat peasant fare than dine with Lord Richard at Swordgrim.” She winced again. “I can’t imagine how you knights can ride that hard for days on end.”

“Practice, mostly,” said Mazael. “You’re still able to sit, at least. When Gerald first trained with a lance and hammer from horseback, he had to sleep standing up for weeks.”

“Gods, don’t remind me,” said Gerald, rummaging through one of Mantle’s saddlebags.

“Gerald?” said Rachel. She laughed. “Sir knight, I’ve been riding with you all day, and I don’t know your name!  Mazael, would you kindly make the introductions?”

“Certainly,” said Mazael. “Lady Rachel Cravenlock, this is Sir Gerald Roland. Sir Gerald, Lady Rachel.”

Rachel’s pretty green eyes widened. “Sir Gerald Roland?” Gerald looked pleased. “Lord Malden’s son, Sir Gerald?” Gerald nodded. “A pleasure to meet you, my lord knight. What brings you to the Grim Marches?”

“I was wondering much the same of you, sister,” said Mazael, tearing a hard chunk of bread into four pieces.

“It’s been fifteen years since we’ve heard from you, Mazael,” said Rachel. “Then, a day and a half after I’m kidnapped by Sir Tanam Crowley, I find you here with the youngest son of one of the most powerful lords in the kingdom. That is a strange coincidence, I think.”

“So Crowley did kidnap you?” said Gerald. “Gods, Mazael!  What have we walked into?”

“A mess, it seems,” said Mazael. “But that’s a fair question, sister. I’ve served Lord Malden Roland for the last nine years. When Lord Malden heard rumors of trouble in the Grim Marches, he sent us to investigate.”

“My father has a vested interest in the Grim Marches,” said Gerald.

“He wants revenge, you mean,” said Mazael. He took a bite of the stale bread and winced.

“Lord Richard did kill Lord Malden’s second son, Sir Belifane,” said Rachel. “And he killed our older two brothers, Mazael.”

“I know,” said Mazael. He hadn’t liked his two oldest brothers and considered their deaths a favor. “Our brothers and Sir Belifane Roland managed to get themselves killed in battle with Richard Mandragon. Then Father marched out from Swordgrim to avenge their deaths, and what happened?  Father lost, Lord Richard marched in triumph into Swordgrim, and we were left with Lord Mitor the Mushroom.”

Rachel laughed.

Gerald looked puzzled. “Mitor the—Mushroom?”

“Our nickname for Mitor, when we were children,” said Mazael. “When you meet him, you’ll understand. So, now that you know how we came here, how did you wind up the captive of Sir Tanam Crowley?”

Rachel shivered and hunched closer to the fire. “It’s…a long story.”

“Considering I just tried to kill one of the Dragonslayer’s sworn knights, I would like to hear it,” said Mazael. He looked at Rachel for a moment. She was indeed thinner than he expected, more tired, more worn.

“It was about a marriage,” said Rachel. Her eyes glimmered in the firelight.

This surprised Mazael. “You aren’t married yet?  I thought Mitor would have married you off the instant you came of age.”

“He wanted to,” said Rachel. “But he wanted to save me for the son of some powerful lord, someone with whom he could make a strong alliance.”

“Bloody chance of that,” said Mazael. “The Dragonslayer crushed Lord Adalon. What fool would want to ally himself with Lord Adalon’s imbecile son?”

“Not many,” agreed Rachel.

“Did Mitor ever get married?” said Mazael.

“He did,” said Rachel. “About four years ago, to Marcelle Trand.”

Mazael knew of the Trands, a noble house that had supported Lord Adalon against Lord Richard. After the Dragonslayer became liege lord of the Grim Marches, the Trands found themselves relieved of a great portion of their lands. “Lord Marcus Trand must have been desperate to foist off the girl, if he offered her for Mitor.”

“He was,” said Rachel. “Marcelle is a hateful woman. I imagine Lord Marcus offered her to half the noblemen in the kingdom before Mitor finally took her.”

“Why would Lord Mitor marry her, then? From everything you’ve told me over the years, Mazael, your brother sounds a proud man,” said Gerald.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Mazael. “If Mitor ever goes to war against Lord Richard, then Lord Marcus will have to stand with him.” Mazael paused. “Is Mitor planning to do something so foolish, Rachel? Lord Richard is a seasoned commander, Mitor is no warrior, and Swordgrim can raise three times the men Castle Cravenlock can.”

“I don’t know, Mazael. I really don’t.” Rachel stared into the fire. “About six months ago, Lord Richard sent Sir Tanam to Mitor with an offer. Lord Richard wished to end the long enmity between our houses, and offered to join me in marriage to his eldest son Toraine.”

“Amatheon and Amater!” swore Mazael.

Gerald frowned. “That’s brilliant. Toraine is Lord Richard’s heir. If you bore him a son, a man with both Mandragon and Cravenlock blood would rule the Grim Marches one day. That would forever end the rivalry between the house of Cravenlock and the house of Mandragon.”

“Mitor refused him,” said Rachel.

Silence hung over the little camp for a moment. Mazael heard the fire crackle, saw the flames dance in Rachel’s eyes. “Why? Even Mitor could not be so foolish. Half the lords in the kingdom have approached Lord Richard to offer their daughters for Toraine. How could he possibly pass up such an opportunity?”

“I didn’t want to marry Toraine Mandragon,” said Rachel in a rush. “He’s a monster. The peasants don’t call him the Black Dragon because of his armor. In a village near Amritsar, a man stole one of Toraine’s horses. The Black Dragon caught the thief and had him and his entire family herded out into the village square. He beheaded them all with his own sword, even a baby and an old woman, and had their heads mounted above the village gate as a warning to other thieves.”

“That’s monstrous,” said Gerald.

“Yes, but he made his point,” said Mazael.

Rachel glared at him. “Would you want me to marry such a…a monster?  Would you want me take him into my bed?”

“No,” said Mazael, “but I doubt Mitor had such concerns. What made him turn Lord Richard down?”

“Pride, I suppose,” said Rachel. “He said it would be an insult for me to marry the son of the man who had murdered my father. And…and I wanted to marry someone else.” Gerald looked disappointed.

“You did?” said Mazael. “Who?”

“Sir Albron Eastwater,” said Rachel. Her eyes lit up with a feverish glow as she said the name.

“I’ve never met him,” said Mazael. “I’ve never even heard of him.”

“He was a mercenary who fought alongside Father against Lord Richard. After Lord Richard won, Father knighted Albron and gave him lands along the Eastwater, north of Castle Cravenlock.”

“So you turned Toraine Mandragon down in favor of a knighted mercenary?” Rachel’s eyes flashed. “No mockery, sister, but Mitor only allowed this to insult Lord Richard. The Mandragons must have been furious.”

Rachel’s lips compressed into a thin line. “You think I don’t know that? I wish that Albron and Toraine’s births could have been reversed. Albron is the best man who ever lived, but Toraine…I half think Toraine is Demonsouled.”

“Don’t tell Lord Richard,” said Mazael, chewing at the stiff jerky. “Mitor’s already insulted him. We needn’t tell him that he was cuckolded by the Old Demon.” Rachel laughed, the weariness falling from her face for a moment. “So Mitor refused Lord Richard. How did you wind up in Sir Tanam Crowley’s hands?”

“After Mitor refused Lord Richard, we heard no response for months. Mitor and Sir Albron feared that Lord Richard planned war. Then a week ago, Sir Tanam returned to express Lord Richard’s regrets. Mitor had no choice but to give Sir Tanam and his men lodgings for the night. They crept into my chamber, seized me, and rode off before the garrison could rouse.”

“Daring,” said Gerald.

“That’s Sir Tanam’s style,” said Mazael. “He has gall, I’ll give him that.”

“Sir Tanam said…he said that Lord Richard had commanded that I be brought to Swordgrim to marry Toraine. I refused…and he said that I had no choice in the matter,” said Rachel.

“That’s odd,” said Mazael. “Sir Tanam said in the inn that you were guilty of…how did he put it…doing witchcraft and practicing sorcery.”

Rachel flinched. “That’s a lie. I did no such thing.” Her eyes darted to the fire and back to his face.

Mazael laughed. “The church and the wizards of Alborg might believe it is a crime for a woman to wield magic, but I don’t care. What, did Master Othar teach you?”

“No,” said Rachel, shaking her head. “No. I’ve had nothing to do with magic, I swear it.”

Mazael shrugged. “If it matters that much…”

“You know our family’s history,” said Rachel. “The peasants are always ready to believe anything evil said about a Cravenlock. There are—there are enough stories already, without adding to them.”

“If you feel it so important,” said Mazael. He smiled. “How are Sir Nathan and Master Othar? You, Sir Nathan, and Master Othar are the only people I regretted leaving behind when I left Castle Cravenlock.”

Rachel hesitated. “They…are well, I believe. Master Othar won’t live much longer, I think. He’s so fat, and has trouble getting around.”

Mazael laughed. “Master Othar was always fat. Careful what you say, sister. Othar has outlived five men who said he had only a year left to live.”

Rachel laughed. It transformed her face. Then she sobered. “Mazael, I’m sorry, but…”

Mazael felt something grab at his stomach. “What?  Sir Nathan?  Is he dead…”

Rachel shook her head, dark hair sliding about her shoulders. “No. Lord Mitor dismissed him as armsmaster.”

Mazael blinked. “What?  Mitor is a bigger fool than even I thought!  Sir Nathan is the finest sword in the Grim Marches, in the kingdom. He’s better than even me!  What was Mitor thinking?”

“Mitor said Sir Nathan was too old, that he needed a younger man as armsmaster,” said Rachel.

“Too old!” said Mazael. This was beyond idiocy. Some of his rage must have shown on his face, because Gerald and Rachel flinched away from him. With an effort, he forced himself to calm down. “I wonder what fool Mitor found to replace the likes of Sir Nathan Greatheart?” Rachel frowned. “I’ll see what Mitor has to say about this, and a great many other things.”

Rachel leaned over and hugged him. “I’m so glad you’ve come home, brother. It’s been so hard, these last few years …but I know you’ll set things right. You will, I know.”

Startled, Mazael took his sister’s hand. “I will try. Someone must stop Mitor. If he continues to follow this course, he’ll bring the kingdom to bloody war.”

For a moment the tired shadow crossed Rachel’s features again.

Then an impish grin lit her face.

“Wait here,” she said, and stood and walked towards the old trees.

“I say, Lady Rachel, come back!” Gerald said. “We risked our lives to win you free…gods only know what is wandering about in the dark.”

She returned a moment later, and the object in her hand sent Mazael’s mind back over the years, to the time he had first met Rachel as a child.

She had been only three. Mazael had spent most of his childhood at Sir Nathan’s estates, away from his mother and brothers, who hated him, and his father, who ignored him. One day Lady Arissa, in a fit of rage, banished Rachel to Nathan’s estates. The old knight ordered Mazael to greet her, a duty he found less than cheerful.

Mazael’s sister arrived in a carriage escorted by a dozen knights. The child’s nurse spotted Mazael and pointed him out to the little girl.

“Look, Rachel,” the woman said. “That’s your brother.”

Rachel’s face lit up, and she out something clutched in her hand.

“Want an apple?” she had said.

Mazael had missed breakfast that morning, and found himself thinking his sister was not such a worthless creature after all.

Now, twenty years later, Rachel held out another apple to Mazael. She was much taller now, and the plumpness had changed into beauty, but the smile had not changed.

“Want an apple?” she said.

Mazael laughed and took the apple.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *