“Soul of Tyrants” excerpt

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Chapter 1

1

Wolves among Sheep

 

Lord Mazael Cravenlock left the camp and watched the sun rise over the Grim Marches, as he did every morning. The dawn seemed to paint the winter-brown plains the color of blood.

Mazael scowled, his bearded jaw clenching.

The blood might prove real, soon enough.

“My lord?”

A stern-faced boy of about fifteen years stepped to Mazael’s side, carrying a pile of armor.

Mazael nodded. “Adalar. I am ready.”

Adalar Greatheart grunted. “Hold out your arms, my lord.”

Mazael complied. The dawn’s bloody rays slanted into the camp, throwing long black shadows. Squires hastened back and forth, bearing arms and armor, polishing shields and sharpening swords. Bacon sizzled over the campfires, and horses neighed and grunted.

Despite his rise to the lordship of Castle Cravenlock, Mazael still wore the battered armor from his days as a wandering, landless knight; a mail shirt, scarred steel cuirass, leather gauntlets, and a helmet. A black surcoat with the House of Cravenlock’s three crossed swords was his sole mark of rank.

Around his waist went a worn leather belt with a battered scabbard. In the scabbard rested a magnificent longsword with a golden pommel shaped like a lion’s head.

“Send Sir Gerald to me,” said Mazael, “and get yourself something to eat before we set out.”

“My lord,” said Adalar.

“And I mean it,” said Mazael, pointing. “Eat something. The other squires can manage themselves long enough for you to eat.”

Adalar flashed a rare grin. The boy was sterner than his father, sometimes. “My lord.”

Mazael shook his head, crossed his arms, and watched the camp. He had forty knights and their attendant squires with him. More than enough for what he had in mind.

Or so he hoped.

Armor clanked, and Mazael looked over his shoulder. A young, gold-haired man in polished plate and a fine blue surcoat emblazoned with a stylized greathelm walked towards Mazael, followed by a dour, pimpled squire of about thirteen.

“Gerald,” said Mazael to his armsmaster. “Are we ready?”

“Soon enough,” said Gerald. He scratched a mustache trimmed with razor precision. “We’ll be ready to ride soon. Mayhap these ruffians will see reason.”

Mazael snorted. “And maybe we’ll all sit down for a feast afterwards.”

Gerald shrugged. “It does seem unlikely. Wesson! Fetch some breakfast, please.”

The pimpled squire grunted and hastened to the cook fires.

“No, it’ll come down to steel,” said Mazael. “We’ve dealt with these bands before. Lord Richard killed most of Mitor’s damned mercenaries, but the survivors have failed to appreciate the lesson.”

“Slow fellows,” said Gerald. “A pity your brother didn’t think to hire smarter mercenaries.”

“Mitor never thought of anything,” said Mazael, scowling at the mention of his dead brother, the previous Lord of Castle Cravenlock. “And if he had hired smarter mercenaries, he might still be alive.”

“No loss, that,” said Gerald. Wesson returned, bearing some bread and bacon. “Perhaps we can talk some sense into this band.”

“Not likely.”

Gerald shook his head. “You always take such a bleak view,” he said, around a mouthful of bacon.

“And I’m usually right,” said Mazael. He raised his voice. “Break camp and mount up! Move! I want to be at White Rock before midday!”

The squires began rolling up tents and rounding up the horses. Mazael took a piece of Gerald’s bacon and watched the camp vanish. Soon the toiling squires loaded the pack animals, the knights mounted their horses, and they were ready.

A thin knight with a pinched face and a scraggly mustache rode towards Mazael. In his left hand he carried a tall lance crowned with the black-and-silver Cravenlock banner.

“Sir Aulus?” said Mazael.

“My lord,” said Sir Aulus Hirdan, his deep voice incongruous against his wasted appearance. “We are ready.”

“Good,” said Mazael. Adalar returned, leading a large, ill-tempered destrier. The horse looked like it wanted to bite someone. Mazael stepped to the beast’s side, running his hand along its neck. The big horse stamped and snorted, throwing its mane.

“Well, Chariot,” said Mazael to his war horse. “Once again. You’ll kill someone before the day’s done.”

Chariot almost looked pleased.

Mazael sprang up into the saddle. The squires mounted their palfreys, leading the pack horses, and rode to the side of their knights.

“We ought to say a prayer before we ride out,” said Gerald.

“Steel will settle this, not the gods,” said Mazael.

“The gods watch over all mortal affairs,” said Gerald

“Aye,” said Mazael, closing his eyes. He knew that very well, knew it far better than Gerald. “Ride out!”

They rode away to the south.

 

###

 

A few hours later they came to the village of White Rock, near the silent, looming trees of the Great Southern Forest. The village itself huddled within a stout palisade of sharpened logs. White Rock had survived Lord Richard Mandragon’s conquest of the Grim Marches, Lord Mitor’s failed rebellion, and a small army of corpses animated by necromantic arts.

Compared to that, a band of sixty ragged mercenaries seemed a small threat. And Mazael was determined that no harm would befall White Rock. The village had sworn him loyalty, and Mazael had promised protection.

He drew his knights in a line facing both White Rock and the mercenary camp. White Rock had proven inhospitable to the mercenaries, to judge from the arrow-ridden corpses near the palisade’s gate.

“Rabble,” said Mazael. He rarely became angry, not since Romaria’s death, but faint flicker of anger burned in his chest. These scum dared to prey upon his lands, his people?

“Perhaps they’ll be wise enough to stand down,” said Gerald, reining in at Mazael’s side.

Mazael snorted. “Perhaps. Aulus!”

Sir Aulus spurred his horse forward, the Cravenlock banner flapping, his right hand raised in parley. The ragged mercenaries turned and faced him, muttering with interest.

“Hear ye all!” Aulus called, his stentorian voice booming over the plains. “Mazael, Lord of Castle Cravenlock, commands you to lay down your arms and depart peacefully from his lands at once. Amnesty shall be offered to those who surrender!”

A chorus of jeers and ragged laughs went up. The largest of the mercenaries, a hulking brute in rusty mail, whirled and dropped his trousers.

“Disgraceful,” said Gerald. Aulus turned and galloped back to Mazael’s line.

“I told you,” said Mazael. He reached down and drew his longsword. Lion’s blade gleamed like blue ice in the dull winter sunlight.

“They’ve no respect for you,” said Gerald, shaking his head.

“Of course not,” said Mazael. “I’m Mitor’s younger brother. Mitor was fat and weak and stupid. Why should I be any different?”

Of course, Mazael was only Mitor’s half-brother. But Gerald didn’t know that, and neither did the mercenaries.

If they had known Mazael’s true father, they might have regarded him differently.

With outright terror, most likely.

Gerald grinned, drawing his own blade. “Shall we teach them otherwise?”

“I suppose so,” said Mazael.

In his younger days, he had felt a raging joy at the prospect of battle, a ferocious and delighted bloodlust. Since Romaria had died, he had felt nothing of the sort. Now he felt only disgust and a vague weariness. This was necessary, and nothing more.

But if he had to fight, he would fight well.

He adjusted his helm, pointed Lion at the mercenaries, and kicked Chariot to a gallop. The big horse snorted and rumbled forward. A half-second later Mazael’s knights surged after him, swords and lances gleaming.

The mercenaries gaped at them for a moment, then lunged for their weapons in a scrambled panic. They managed to form into a ragged line, but too late to stop the knights. Mazael beat aside a spear, reversed Lion, and took off a mercenary’s head in a sweeping backhand. Chariot ran down another, pummeling the man to bloody pulp.

The knights tore through the line of mercenaries. Nearly half had been cut down, without loss to Mazael’s men, while the rest fled in all directions.

“Reform!” yelled Mazael, wheeling Chariot around. “Another charge!”

“Stand, lads!” roared the big mercenary in the rusty mail shirt, brandishing a ridged mace. “Stand and fight, if you don’t want to die!”

Some of the mercenaries kept running. Others turned, gripped their weapons, and set themselves. Mazael guided Chariot towards the mercenary leader, raising Lion for an overhand slash.

The mercenary snarled and flung his mace at the last minute, jumping out of Chariot’s path. The mace’s head crashed into Mazael’s breastplate with a shriek of tortured metal. Mazael hissed in pain, heard something crack within his chest. He reeled in the saddle, Lion dangling from his grasp. The mercenary yanked a dagger free and sprang, howling, and Mazael thrust out. The mercenary impaled himself and died twitching.

Mazael kicked the dying man free and found that the battle had ended. Most of the mercenaries lay dead and dying, the brown grasses stained with red blood. The few survivors stood in a ring of scowling knights. Mazael grunted in pain and trotted Chariot towards the ring. He knew the pain well; he had broken ribs more than once.

The pain lessened as he rode, an odd tingling spreading through his chest.

“Mazael!” Gerald rode towards him, blood dripping from the length of his longsword. “Are you well? I saw that mace hit you…”

“I’ll be fine,” said Mazael.

“Perhaps you should…”

“I said I’ll be fine,” said Mazael, trying not to growl. “Any losses?”

“None,” said Gerald. Wesson rode up and set to work cleaning Gerald’s sword. “I think you were the only one wounded.”

“Embarrassing,” said Mazael. He jerked his head at the captured mercenaries. “How many prisoners?”

“Seven,” said Gerald. Adalar joined them, cast a concerned look at Mazael.

“Seven,” repeated Mazael. “Good enough. Question them.”

“Why?” said Gerald.

“We’ve taken a half-dozen of these mercenary bands in the last three months,” said Mazael. “Mercenaries love easy plunder, not armed opposition. They should have fled long ago.” He took a long, painful breath. “I think someone’s hiring them.”

Gerald looked stunned. “Who would do such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” said Mazael. “Not all my vassals were pleased to see me replace Mitor.” He shrugged. “Lord Richard, maybe. Or Toraine Mandragon. Or perhaps even your father.”

“My father would not do something so underhanded!” said Gerald.

Mazael shrugged again. “Perhaps not. But I doubt he was pleased to hear of me becoming Lord of Castle Cravenlock. Sir Aulus!” Mazael’s herald rode over. “Question them. If I am pleased with their answers, they might yet leave the Grim Marches alive.” He considered this for a moment. “Possibly.”

Aulus nodded and went about his work.

Mazael sat in the saddle and waited.

A fierce itching filled his chest, as if the broken rib was knitting itself back together.

 

###

 

“Sir Roger Gravesend,” said Gerald, disgusted.

The surviving mercenaries trudged away, relieved of their weapons, armor, coin, and cloaks.

“I should have known,” said Mazael, shaking his head. “He was not happy when Mitor was killed.”

“And rumor held that he followed the San-keth way,” said Gerald. “Is he at Castle Cravenlock?”

“As it happens, yes,” said Mazael, turning Chariot around. “Perhaps we’ll have a long talk with him.”

“How is your chest?” said Gerald.

Mazael frowned. “What?”

Gerald pointed. “That mace. It looked like a fierce blow.”

“That?” said Mazael. He had forgotten. “It’s fine. The armor turned the worst of it.”

Gerald gave the dent in Mazael’s breastplate a dubious look.

Mazael forced a smile. “I’m well. Enough talk. Let’s go home.”

Gerald nodded. “I would enjoy spending a night under a proper roof.” He rode for the squires and knights, herding them into the line.

Mazael sighed in relief. Gerald had not noticed. It would take weeks for a normal man to recover from a badly broken rib.

Mazael’s injury had healed in a matter of minutes.

No one knew the truth. Romaria had known, but she was dead at the hands of the Old Demon.

Mazael was Demonsouled, the Old Demon’s son, and the blood of the Great Demon flowed through his veins.

2

Lord of Castle Cravenlock

 

Two days’ ride took them home.

Castle Cravenlock squatted atop a craggy hill, a massive pile of dark stone, grim towers, and arched windows. The Cravenlock banner flapped from the highest tower, while the banners of Mazael’s knights and vassals flew from the lower battlements. It was an ugly castle. Romaria had said it looked like the lair of an evil wizard from a children’s tale, and Mazael agreed with her.

Still, it was home.

Mazael and his knights rode past flocks of sheep, heavy with winter wool, and through the castle’s town, an overgrown village of four thousand people. They clattered up the road and to the castle’s barbican. The watchmen bowed and stepped aside. Mazael reined up before the keep’s gates, dirty snow and frozen earth churning beneath Chariot’s hooves. Servants hurried to and fro, intent on their various tasks. Chickens waddled through the yard, pecking for dropped corn.

Adalar took Chariot’s reins as Mazael swung out of the saddle. A small army of squires and pages hastened out of the keep, assisting their knights. Every now and again Adalar cast them fierce glares, and Mazael grinned. If the castle’s squires feared Adalar, then the pages held him in naked terror.

“Sir Gerald!” called Mazael, pulling off his leather gauntlets. “See to things here!”

Gerald nodded and let Adalar and Wesson drive the squires.

Mazael crossed the courtyard, entered the keep, and strode into the castle’s cavernous great hall. Stale smoke drifted beneath the vaulted stone arches. Perhaps twenty men lay wrapped in blankets on the floor, snoring, weapons and armor piled besides their bedrolls. Mazael was lord of over four hundred knights and a few dozen minor lords. From forty to eighty loitered about his hall at any given time. Some came to fulfill their obligations of armed service. Some came because they had nothing better to do. Sir Aulus Hirdan served as herald year-round to escape his nagging wife.

And one, Sir Roger Gravesend, had come to kill Mazael.

Mazael spotted Sir Roger sleeping near one of the fireplaces. In his younger days, Mazael might have simply walked over and killed the man. But Mazael had rejected his Demonsouled heritage, renounced it at great cost, and would not murder Sir Roger out of hand.

Besides, he had better ways to deal with Sir Roger.

Mazael made his way unnoticed to the dais at the far end of the hall and climbed the lord’s private stair. It led to what had once been the lord and lady’s apartments. The apartments also contained one of the concealed entrances to the catacombs and San-keth temple beneath the castle. Mazael had no wish to ever set foot in that accursed temple again. So he had ordered the rooms walled up. Now only a narrow corridor remained, leading to the chapel’s balcony.

He entered the balcony and looked into the chapel. Incense hung heavy in the air, wisps of smoke curling beneath the domed ceiling. A half-dozen priests moved about the altar, droning prayers in the ancient tongue of Tristafel, beseeching Amatheon and Amater and Joraviar for protection.

The balcony was deserted but for a slender woman with dark hair and a green gown, her head bowed, lips moving soundlessly. The priests concluded their ceremony, and Mazael crossed the balcony and sat beside the woman.

She looked up in surprise, sad green eyes widening, and smiled. “Mazael!”

“Rachel,” he said.

His sister leaned over and kissed his cheek.

Of course, she was only his half-sister. But Mazael didn’t care. She was his sister, by blood or not. They had been through too much together. They had outlived their ruthless and cruel mother, had endured Lord Adalon’s defeat, and had survived Lord Mitor’s doomed rebellion and San-keth worship. Mazael had almost killed Rachel, succumbed to the Old Demon’s hideous taunts and taken her life.

He was glad he hadn’t.

“You’re back early,” said Rachel. She hesitated. “Did things go well?”

“Well enough,” said Mazael. “Another band of Mitor’s mercenaries decided to indulge in a little looting and raping before they left. We persuaded them otherwise.”

Rachel’s lip twitched. “I’m sure. Is…Gerald all right?”

“Untouched,” said Mazael.

“A letter came from Lord Malden while you were gone,” said Rachel.

“It did?” said Mazael, thinking of Gerald’s father. “What did it say?”

“Nothing,” said Rachel. “At least nothing of importance. Only that he was sending his son Sir Tobias Roland here to negotiate the terms of the marriage.” She hesitated. “Do…you think he will say yes?”

“I don’t know,” said Mazael. Lord Malden Roland was a proud and masterful man, and revealed little of his mind even to trusted servants.

Lord Malden might not approve of Mazael becoming Lord of Castle Cravenlock.

And he might not approve of his youngest son marrying Mazael’s sister.

“I don’t know,” repeated Mazael, feeling a twinge of guilt. He had spent fifteen years as a landless knight, fighting and drinking and whoring his way across the High King’s lands. Rachel had spent those same years trapped at Castle Cravenlock, dominated by Mitor, twisted bit by bit to the worship of the San-keth.

She gave him a brittle smile. “You think there might not be a wedding?”

Mazael sighed. “Lord Richard gave his approval, but grudgingly, and he might change his mind.”

Rachel scoffed. “What does Richard Mandragon’s will mean to us?” Rachel had never quite gotten over her hatred of the man who had defeated her father.

“He is the liege lord of the Grim Marches, our liege lord, like it or not,” said Mazael, “and could crush us, if he chose. But he won’t. It’s Gerald’s father that worries me.”

“Lord Malden.”

Mazael nodded. “He may not agree to this marriage.”

“Why not?”

“He hates Lord Richard,” said Mazael. “He’s never forgiven him for Belifane’s death.” Mazael looked at the chapel’s windows, remembering the bloody sunrise. “He’s wanted revenge for fifteen years. If he has to cover the Grim Marches in a sea of blood to kill Lord Richard, he’ll do it.” Mazael sighed again. “And he might want to kill me.”

“You? Why?”

“I was a knight in his court,” said Mazael. “Since I’ve become Lord of Castle Cravenlock, he’ll expect me to side with him against Lord Richard.”

“And you won’t.”

“No. No more wars. I’ve seen enough of it. I will fight if I must, but only if I must.” Mazael remembered the Old Demon’s gloating boasts and shuddered. The Old Demon had arranged Lord Mitor’s rebellion, manipulated everything, for the sole purpose of releasing Mazael’s Demonsouled nature. What might the Old Demon do with a war between Lord Richard and Lord Malden?

And the Old Demon had other children. Romaria had saved him from his Demonsouled nature, but Mazael doubted his Demonsouled half-brothers and half-sisters had been so fortunate. What might they do in such a war?

“Mazael?”

Mazael shook himself out of the reverie.

“You looked so grim,” said Rachel, looking at him with a hint of fear.

“I will not slaughter men to slake Lord Malden’s pride,” said Mazael. “If that ruins the marriage, I am sorry.”

“I love Gerald, Mazael,” said Rachel.

“What has love to do with marriage?” said Mazael.

“Nothing, usually,” said Rachel. “Our mother and father hated each other. Mitor and his wife loathed each other.” She shrugged. “I always expected Mitor to marry me to someone I would hate. Some lord or knight or even a bandit chief he needed. Then you betrothed me to Gerald. I thought you did that…to keep me from falling into my old ways, the San-keth worship.”

“I did,” said Mazael.

“I know,” said Rachel. “But he’s different than I thought he would be. He’s not like Mitor. He’s…helped me so much, he’s kind and thoughtful. I love him, Mazael. I want to marry him.”

Mazael squeezed her hand. “If I can make it happen, I will. If you’re married to Gerald, Lord Malden can’t move against Lord Richard without my aid, and I won’t help him war against Lord Richard.”

“And if I marry Gerald, I’ll be happy,” said Rachel.

“That as well,” said Mazael. “Though if Lord Malden goes to war against Lord Richard, I doubt you, or anyone else, will be happy.” He thought again of the Old Demon’s boasts.

“Are you sure you are well?” said Rachel. “You looked a bit pale.”

“I need to ask you something. How well do you know Sir Roger Gravesend?”

“Sir Roger?” said Rachel, frowning. “Better than I would like. He supported Mitor from the beginning, encouraged him to rebel,” she hesitated, “and went right along with him when Skhath encouraged the San-keth worship.”

“So he worshipped the snake-god with Mitor,” said Mazael, avoiding Rachel’s own participation in the foul rites.

“He did,” said Rachel. “Mitor trusted him as much as he trusted anyone, except maybe Simonian.” Mazael winced at the mention of the necromancer’s name, the disguise the Old Demon had assumed. “Mitor would probably have wound up giving me to him, except…”

“Except he pledged you to Skhath,” said Mazael. Rachel would have become the bride of the San-keth priest, given birth to changelings of mixed San-keth and human blood.

Rachel closed her eyes. “Don’t remind me. I don’t like to think of those days.”

“I’m sorry.”

Rachel shook her head. “Don’t be. Why did you ask?”

“Sir Roger is hiring those mercenary bands,” said Mazael.

“Why would he do that?”

Mazael shrugged. “I don’t know. Revenge, perhaps. Or maybe he’s trying to kill me. I doubt he appreciates my lordship.”

“If he’s trying to kill you, why not hang him at once?” said Rachel.

“No proof,” said Mazael.

“He’s trying to kill you!” said Rachel, a hint of hysteria entering her voice. “You’re the only hope Castle Cravenlock has. If you die…I don’t know what we’d do…”

“Rachel,” said Mazael, taking her shoulders. “After surviving Mitor, Skhath, and Simonian, I think it will take more than a petty knight to kill me.”

“If you say so,” said Rachel.

“I do,” said Mazael. “Go. Gerald’s probably wondering where you.”

Rachel smiled. “He would be.” She rose, adjusting her skirts.

“Wait.” Mazael caught her wrist. “Do you know where Sir Nathan and Timothy are?”

“The north wall, I think,” she said, brushing back a stray lock of hair.

“Thank you,” said Mazael. “I’ll see you at dinner, then.”

She smiled, kissed him again, and vanished through the door.

Mazael stared at the altar, watching the last of the smoke dissipate. He wanted Rachel’s marriage to Gerald, wanted it as a lever to keep Lord Richard and Lord Malden from each other’s throats. He had expected Gerald to treat Rachel gallantly, Rachel to serve as a dutiful wife.

He had not expected the two of them to fall in love.

Mazael had failed Rachel before. Wars or no wars, he did not want to fail her again. He glanced at the stairs before the altar, his vision blurring a bit. Romaria had fallen there, slain at the hands of the Old Demon. Mazael would have married her, as Gerald was now going to marry Rachel…

He could brood later. Right now he had work to do. He gathered his cloak about him, exited the keep, and climbed the stairs to the castle’s curtain wall. The wind was warmer than it had been earlier in the day.

Three men stood in a loose circle on the northern wall, arguing with each other. The first looked as old and tough as an ancient oak, the hilt of a greatsword rising over his shoulder. The second wore all black, and had a nervous, twitchy look. The third man was red-faced, balding, and paused every now and again to wipe his brow.

“The castle is still here,” said Mazael, “so I will assume you have done well.”

As one the men turned to look at him.

“Lord Mazael,” said the old man, handing him a rolled sheet of vellum.

“Thank you, Sir Nathan,” said Mazael, taking the scroll and opening it. At the bottom of the page glimmered the silver greathelm sigil of the Rolands. “From Lord Malden, I presume?”

“How did you know?” said the nervous, black-clad man.

“Rachel mentioned it,” Mazael told Timothy deBlanc, his court wizard. Timothy looked like a frightened farmer, but had stayed at Mazael’s side through some very dangerous times. “Sir Tobias will be here any day, I see.”

“Aye,” said the fat man, wiping his brow again. “Lord Malden must have sent the letter only a few days before Sir Tobias left Knightcastle. We should have ample food to lodge Sir Tobias and his men.” He hesitated, biting his lip. “Though I hope Sir Tobias doesn’t wish to stay overlong.”

“Knowing Sir Tobias, Master Cramton, I doubt it,” said Mazael. Cramton served as Mazael’s seneschal. The man had the courage of a mouse, but could smell graft and embezzlement from fifty miles away. “See to the preparations.”

“My lord.” Cramton hastened away.

“Was my son’s service satisfactory, my lord?” said Sir Nathan.

“Quite,” said Mazael. “You always ask the same question, and I always give you the same answer. Sir Gerald is in the courtyard, and could use your help, probably.”

“He is the armsmaster,” said Sir Nathan, “not I.” Sir Nathan had been Castle Cravenlock’s armsmaster for decades, until Mitor had stripped him of the post. Mazael had tried to give it back to Nathan, more than once, but the old knight always refused.

“Go help him anyway.”

A ghost of a smile touched Nathan’s weathered face. “My lord.” He left, leaving Mazael alone with Timothy.

“How goes the work?” said Mazael.

“Well enough,” said Timothy, scratching his chin. He coughed and squinted at the wall. “Lucan and I have almost finished the ward-spell against the undead. No San-keth clerics will enter the castle without our knowledge.”

“Good,” said Mazael. “I have had enough of the San-keth to last a lifetime.”

Timothy offered a vigorous nod. “As have I.”

“What of the catacombs?” The hidden San-keth temple had lain beneath Castle Cravenlock for centuries, forgotten and secret. Mazael would have collapsed it, if doing so would have not brought most of the castle crashing down.

“Mostly sealed, I’m pleased to say,” said Timothy.  “The images have been smashed, the bas-reliefs destroyed. I’ll have the peasants fill the entrances with as much rubble as possible. With any luck, no eyes will ever see that place again. The destruction of the temple’s library is the most difficult remaining task.”

Mazael snorted. “How hard can it be to destroy a pile of scrolls and books? Just toss the damned things into the fire and have done with it.”

“They won’t burn, I’m afraid,” said Timothy. “Most of them are warded by powerful spells. A few of the books have protections that are, ah, dangerous, and will blast a man’s mind if he opens the cover. Lucan and I must go through them one by one, pierce the warding spells, and destroy the books.”

Mazael thought for a moment. “Is Lucan’s help useful?”

“Invaluable, my lord,” said Timothy. He seemed to brace himself. “In all honesty, I must say that he is a far more skilled than I. He would make a better court wizard.”

“No,” said Mazael. “Lucan is…not a man others trust. Or even like.”

“No,” agreed Timothy. “He…is moody, certainly. But he has never done anything to alarm me. I don’t understand why he’s so feared.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Mazael. Lucan was a more powerful wizard than Timothy. But Timothy was loyal and plainspoken. And folk, noble and common alike, feared and loathed wizards. Timothy rarely inspired such fear.

Besides, Mazael trusted Timothy.

He did not trust Lucan Mandragon.

“I will finish the wards as soon as possible,” said Timothy. He hesitated. “The San-keth will come again, someday. For revenge.”

“Oh, they will,” said Mazael. “But we’ll be ready.”

Timothy nodded, though he did not look very confident.

“And your other duties?” said Mazael.

“I’ve finished the ward-spells around the granaries,” said Timothy. He shrugged. “I think I did them right. With any luck, rats won’t be a problem this year. Though I’ll have to rework them next season.”

“Good enough,” said Mazael, clapping the wizard’s shoulder. Timothy smiled, bowed, and hastened away. Mazael stood on the wall for a moment, watching the castle, his castle, bustle with activity. The place had lost much of the pall that had hung over it during Mitor’s rule. The Grim Marches were half-desolate, had never quite recovered from Lord Adalon’s defeat. More ruined villages than prosperous ones filled the plains. Mazael meant to change that. He wanted his people to be prosperous and fat and happy, safe from bandits and cruel lords.

He looked up.

A dark-cloaked shape stood atop the highest tower of the keep, gazing to the west.

That dark figure might hold the key to the Grim Marches’s prosperity or destruction.

It was no use putting it off. Mazael descended into the courtyard and circled around the back of the keep, past the kitchens. Chickens destined for the table picked at the barren earth, while the sheep huddled together in their pen. A half-dozen servants burst from the kitchen doors, carrying buckets. A young woman in a rough skirt and a white peasant blouse stalked after them, waving a wooden spoon and shouting orders.

“And see that you fill the buckets to the brim this time! When I tell you I want six buckets of water, I want six buckets of water, by all the gods.” She slapped the spoon against her hand. “Run!” She turned, saw Mazael, and offered him a brilliant, albeit gap-toothed, smile.

“My lord Mazael,” she said, gripping her skirt and doing a deep curtsy.

He saw right down the front of her blouse.

“Madame Bethy,” said Mazael, smiling, despite himself. “All’s well in the kitchens?”

“Well enough, my lord,” she said, her smile widening, “though we don’t see nearly enough of you.”

Bethy was mistress of the kitchens, and ruled them with a firm hand that made Adalar and his father look downright mild.

Mazael suspected she also wanted to become his mistress.

“Do the new servants give you much trouble?” said Mazael.

“No end of it,” said Bethy, snorting. “Not a one of them knows which end of a spoon is which.” She stepped forward, lowering her voice, and her scent, smoke mixed with sweat, flooded into Mazael’s nostrils. He stifled an urge to smell her hair. “But none of them are snake-kissers. I’d know.”

“Good,” said Mazael. The folk of Mazael’s lands had abandoned the San-keth faith, or so they claimed. Mazael did not doubt that more than a few holdouts remained, praying to Sepharivaim in hidden cellars and abandoned barns. “Keep a close eye on them.”

“I will,” said Bethy. “If I find any, I’ll tell you at once.” Her expression softened, became playful, and she stepped so close to Mazael that she almost touched him. “In private, perhaps, when my lord is alone?”

Mazael stared at her. The heat from the kitchens’ fires had made her sweat, given her face a slight sheen. Her hair rested in an untidy bun atop her head, but it only exposed the curve of her neck.

“So mighty a lord,” she murmured, “ought not to be alone.”

Mazael had not lain with a woman for over a year. The Old Demon had taken Romaria from him before they ever had the chance. But Romaria was dead and Mazael was not, and Bethy was here and willing. But Mazael dared not sleep with her, nor with any other woman.

Mazael was Demonsouled, son of the Old Demon.

His tainted blood, his curse of murder and rage, would pass on to his children.

And he had not led a chaste life before learning the truth of his heritage. Suppose he had fathered a Demonsouled child on some merchant’s widow, on a long-forgotten whore? Suppose he had fathered more than one?

Mazael dared not take that risk, no matter how much a woman made his blood boil.

“If you find any snake-kissers,” said Mazael, his voice a bit hoarse, “let me know at once.”

Bethy looked disappointed, but smiled again. “Of course, my lord.” She did another curtsy, letting Mazael see down her blouse again, and vanished into the kitchens.

“Damn her,” Mazael muttered.

The guards at the keep’s gates bowed to him and pulled open the doors at his approach. Mazael would never get used to that. He nodded to the guards,  took to the stairs, and climbed to the top of the keep.

He stepped onto the highest turret, the wind tugging at his hair and cloak.

The Grim Marches stretched away in all directions, flat and brown. Gray clouds covered the sky, slashed with red light from the rising sun. Spirals of smoke rose from the chimneys in the town below.

A man stood at the battlements, wrapped in a voluminous black cloak.

“So you’ve returned,” said the man, not turning. His voice, as always, held a sardonic edge, as if amused at a private, cruel joke.

“So I have,” said Mazael, his hand twitching to Lion’s hilt. “Surprised? Or disappointed?”

“Neither. You have, Lord Mazael, proven remarkably difficult to kill.” The voice’s dark amusement grew. “To your late brother’s great dismay, no doubt.”

“I’m sure,” said Mazael, walking to the cloaked man’s side.

The top of the black cowl came to Mazael’s bearded jaw.

“Another glorious morning in the Grim Marches,” said the man. He had a pale, gaunt face, and eyes like glittering disks of obsidian. Many men named him the Dragon’s Shadow in a mixture of scornful mockery and sheer terror.

They had good reason to fear him. Lucan Mandragon, son of Richard Mandragon, was the most powerful wizard in the Grim Marches.

He could not have been older than twenty.

“The mercenaries proved foolish enough to fight?” said Lucan.

“As always.”

“Ah,” said Lucan. His cruel smile seemed out of place on such a young man. “The bloody sunrises of the Grim Marches. Appropriate, really. Given that the Grim Marches themselves may soon drown in blood.”

“Not if I can do anything about it,” said Mazael.

“Can you?” said Lucan. “I have never met Lord Malden, but he does not seem a man to forgive the death of a son.”

“Sir Belifane’s death was his own fault,” said Mazael, “not your father’s.”

“I doubt Lord Malden views matters with such equanimity.”

“Lord Malden can’t fight Lord Richard without my aid,” said Mazael. “And if Rachel marries Gerald Roland, Lord Malden won’t get my help.”

“My father will consider such a marriage a threat to his power. And my noble lord father,” Lucan’s sneer intensified, “is not a man to suffer challenges.”

“He doesn’t want war, either,” said Mazael. “He told me so himself.”

Lucan scoffed. “He doesn’t want war because he doesn’t believe he can win. If my father ever has the chance to rid himself of Malden Roland, he will do so ruthlessly and without hesitation.”

“And he cannot do so without my aid,” said Mazael, “and so, we will have no war.”

The younger man stared at him. Mazael met the black gaze without flinching. Lucan had stayed at Castle Cravenlock for over a year, at Lord Richard’s express wish, yet Mazael had never been able to determine just what Lucan wanted. The Dragon’s Shadow had a black reputation, yet Mazael had seen no reason for it, save for Lucan’s constant foul humor.

Lucan smiled without rancor. He rarely did so, yet the black mood seemed to fall from his face, and for a moment he seemed an entirely different man. “A noble goal, Lord Mazael. Certainly noble.” His face hardened, the mask returning. “Now let us see if you can achieve it.”

“I will,” said Mazael.

“And likely you’ll fail,” said Lucan. “Strive for peace all you wish. But it will come to war. Blood and terror in the end.” He waved his hand over the expanses of the Grim Marches. “It always does.”

Mazael thought of the Old Demon standing on the altar in Castle Cravenlock’s chapel, his mocking, hideous boasts. “No. It need not.”

But Mitor and his wife had died there, as had the San-keth priest Skhath.

As had Romaria.

“We will not come to war if I can avoid it,” said Mazael.

Lucan inclined his head, yielding nothing.

“Now. Tell me. What do you know of Sir Roger Gravesend?” said Mazael.

“A braying ass. A man without wisdom, subtlety, or any trace of wit. Though a competent enough swordsman.”

“He has been hiring the mercenary bands,” said Mazael.

A dark eyebrow rose. “Has he? It seems a wasted effort.”

“I wonder where he obtained the gold,” said Mazael. “From your father, perhaps?”

“My father?” Lucan looked amused. “I am hardly one to sing of the praises of Lord Richard, the great and mighty Dragonslayer, but he is not one to throw his gold down a black hole.”

“He approves only grudgingly of Rachel’s betrothal to Gerald,” said Mazael. “He might use a man like Sir Roger to show his disapproval.”

Lucan laughed aloud. “If my father were unhappy with you, he’d come here himself, with his armies, raze this ugly pile of a castle to the ground, and mount your head on a pike.” He laughed again, the sound ugly. “Or he’d just have me kill you.”

Mazael dropped his hand to Lion’s hilt. “You might try.”

They glared at each other for a moment, the wind snapping their cloaks.

Lucan sighed. “A futile gesture, since my father has not ordered me to kill you. In fact, he’s quite pleased with you.” He shrugged. “You’re certainly an improvement over that toadstool Mitor, at least.”

“High praise,” said Mazael. “Where do you think Sir Roger’s getting his gold?”

“The San-keth, probably.”

“The San-keth? Why?” said Mazael.

Again Lucan’s eyebrow rose. “Why not? They have every reason to wish you and Lady Rachel dead. You killed a San-keth priest. And your sister betrayed them. In their eyes she is now an apostate.” Lucan smirked. “And no faith has ever been tolerant of apostates.”

“A clumsy way to go about it,” said Mazael.

“It is,” agreed Lucan, “quite clumsy. I have seen better. The San-keth have thrice tried to murder my father. Fortunately, my father had my aid,” his lip twitched, “however unappreciated.”

“I will find out the truth tomorrow, at court,” said Mazael.

“And just how shall you accomplish this feat?”

“A peasant has come to the castle, bringing accusations against Sir Roger,” said Mazael. “I’ll need your help.”

Lucan smirked. “In what fashion?”

“You will tell me if Sir Roger speaks the truth or not,” said Mazael.

“Ah,” breathed Lucan. “So I see. Well.” His black eyes glittered like glass knives. “This ought to be interesting. I’ll look forward to it.”

Mazael nodded. Timothy claimed not to understand why so many feared Lucan Mandragon.

But Mazael understood, understood quite well.

He turned and left.

 

###

 

Mazael hated holding court.

He recognized the necessity, of course. If he wanted his lands to become prosperous and safe, he needed to rule them. Without a strong lord in Castle Cravenlock, marauders and bandits of all sorts would descend on the southern Grim Marches like flies to a corpse.

But, by all the gods, court irritated him. He suffered a never-ending stream of landless knights, petty lordlings, and lords seeking a husband for their daughters. They all wanted money, or lands, or for Mazael to fight their enemies.

Mazael hated to sit in one place for long. Lord Mitor had held court in the Great Hall, issuing his judgments from his throne-like chair. Mazael preferred to stalk the Great Hall as he listened and spoke. Sometimes he wandered into the courtyard. His court had no choice to follow him, like prostitutes trailing an army. It drove the clerks mad, but that didn’t trouble Mazael.

It did not help that Lord Richard had banished the Justiciar Order from his lands. The Justiciar Knights had supported Lord Mitor’s rebellion and paid the price. Lord Richard stripped them of their lands and expelled them from the Grim Marches, with the threat of death should they ever return. Richard Mandragon had taken the lion’s share of the seized lands for himself, of course. But he had given a goodly portion of them to Mazael.

Lord Malden must have been enraged. The Justiciar Order was one of his closet allies.

Ever since, landless knights and petty lords had besieged Mazael, offering eternal fidelity and service in exchange for land. He had refused most and forcefully evicted the rest.

Now Mazael paced the great hall, fingers drumming on Lion’s pommel, listening to the speech of a would-be vassal, yet another landless knight with more ambition than sense.

“My lord Mazael,” said the knight, a thick-bearded, red-nosed man with battle-scarred armor, “this manor, from the western bank of the Northwater to the village of Gray Barrow, belongs to my bloodline by right.”

“Oh?” said Mazael. He had not heard this argument before. “Why is that?”

“Because,” said the knight, “I am Sir Jarron Dracarone, last of that line, and my house was one of the original founders of Dracaryl. We were among the first to swear fealty to the first Lord of Castle Cravenlock, twelve hundred years ago, and served him loyally since.”

“You are, are you?” said Mazael. “I’ve been Lord of this castle for nearly a year, yet I seem to have missed your loyal service.”

“My house was banished, centuries ago,” said Sir Jarron, “and only now have I returned to claim my ancestral lands.”

“What a stirring tale,” said Mazael. “Worthy of a high ballad. Lady Rachel?”

Rachel stirred. She sat on the dais, at the high table, besides Gerald. “Lord brother?”

“You’re more familiar with the lore of the Grim Marches than I,” said Mazael. “Tell me, when was the House of Cravenlock founded?”

“A thousand years ago,” said Rachel.

“Really?” said Mazael, glancing sidelong at Sir Jarron. “Not twelve hundred? And, pray, just what happened to the last son of House Dracarone?”

“He died five hundred years ago, along with both his brothers,” said Rachel, “at the Battle of Markast Bridge, when the High King overthrew the last king of Dracaryl.”

“So,” said Mazael, staring at Sir Jarron, who had begun sweating, “you’re either the long-lost scion of a noble house five centuries extinct, or you’re a particularly incompetent liar. Which one, I wonder?”

“My lord,” croaked Sir Jarron, “I…”

“Sir Gerald!” said Mazael. “Please have Sir Jarron shown out.” Gerald pointed. Two armsmen stepped to Sir Jarron’s side.

“You dare!” said Sir Jarron, scowling. “These are my rightful lands! I will not be denied.”

“You may go to Swordgrim and press your suit before Lord Richard, if you like,” said Mazael. “But I am far more tolerant of fools that Lord Richard. I am merely banishing you from my lands. Lord Richard would mount your head above his gates as a warning to other charlatans. Safe journeys, sir knight.”

Sir Jarron got redder.

The armsmen led him away.

A shadow swirled on one of the balconies. Mazael glanced up. Lucan Mandragon stood at the rail, wrapped in his dark cloak, and titled his head. He stood amongst a gaggle of knights’ wives, yet none seemed to notice him. Lucan possessed the ability, spell-granted or otherwise, to move unnoticed among people. He could stand among a crowd and remain utterly unobserved.

Mazael wondered if Lucan had ever used that power on him.

He pushed the disquieting thought away and glanced aside. Sir Roger Gravesend sat on a bench near the high table, his cloak thrown back, his black hair and beard glinting. He spoke in low tones to one of Rachel’s maids, making the girl giggle and blush.

He didn’t seem like a follower of the San-keth way. But, then, neither had Mitor.

Nor had Rachel, for that matter.

“Sir Aulus!”

“My lord!” said Mazael’s herald, straightening from his post by the doors.

“Send in Wat of Bloody Ridge,” said Mazael.

Sir Roger’s head turned at the mention of the smallest village in his manor.

“The freeman Wat!” said Sir Aulus, his sonorous voice booming through the hall, “freeholder in the village of Bloody Ridge!”

A short, sun-browned man shuffled through the doors, clutching a battered hat in his hands. He wore rough, but clean, homespun, his shoes scraping against the stone floor. A bloodstained bandage wrapped his forehead.

Sir Roger’s eyes narrowed, the maid forgotten.

“My lord,” said Wat, bowing, “I’m honored to be here…I am, truly…”

“Yes, yes,” said Mazael. “Why are you here?”

“My lord,” said Wat, bowing again, “I’ll…”

“Stand up!” said Mazael. “I can’t hear if you talk to the floor.”

“My lord.” The peasant straightened. “My family’s held their land in Bloody Ridge since the time of the old kings. We always paid a third to our lords, as tradition says, no more, no less.” He swallowed, eyes darting to Sir Roger. “Then after old Lord Mitor was…ah, died, Sir Roger said…”

“Lies!” said Sir Roger, stalking to Mazael’s side. “This peasant lies.”

“Is he not Wat of Bloody Ridge?” said Mazael.

“He is,” said Sir Roger, “but…”

“And is he not a freeholder in your lands?” said Mazael.

“He was,” said Sir Roger, “but…”

“He has not lied yet.” Mazael gestured to Wat. “Speak.”

Wat swallowed, but kept talking. “Sir Roger told us all the land in the manor was his now, his alone, and that all the folk had to give him two-thirds of their crops. We wouldn’t stand for it…we thought maybe his bailiff was just dishonest, that Sir Roger didn’t know what was happening. So we went and petitioned him. I showed Sir Roger the paper old kings had given my forefathers, the paper saying the land was ours. Sir Roger laughed at me, threw my paper in the fire! Then he sent his men into the village. They took all the crops, everything. My second son tried to stop them. They,” Wat’s face worked, “they cut my boy down, and they struck me when I tried to stop them.” His fingers twitched at the bandage. “I woke up, and I didn’t know what to do. But my wife heard you were a just man, my lord, and she said I should go to you. So I did.”

“A filthy lie!” said Sir Roger, snarling. “It has always been the tradition of Bloody Ridge that the peasants give two parts of their crops to their lord. The peasants revolted against their rightful lord and I put them down.”

Mazael glanced up at the balcony.

Lucan shook his head, smirking.

“That, sir knight, is a lie,” said Mazael, “and I become wroth when my vassals lie to me.”

“You accuse me of lying?” said Sir Roger.

“Were you not listening?” said Mazael. “And I wish to know something else. Why have you been hiring Mitor’s old mercenaries to loot and ravage?”

“What is this?” said Sir Roger. “I have done nothing of the sort!”

Lucan shook his head, lip curling.

“You have,” said Mazael. “That is why you’ve been stealing your peasants’ crops, I deem. You needed some way to pay the mercenaries. Another thing, Sir Roger. Did you kiss the snake when my brother still ruled?”

Sir Roger paled. “You issued amnesty to all those who worshipped the snake-god, so long as they confessed.”

“I did,” said Mazael, “but you never confessed to anything.”

“I never worshipped that filthy idol!” said Sir Roger.

Lucan laughed. No one but Mazael heard him.

“A day for lofty tales, it seems,” said Mazael. “A lost son of House Dracarone returns to claim his lands, and poor Roger Gravesend has to defend himself from rebellious peasants. Of course, Sir Jarron was a fraud, and you are as well, sir knight. I suspect you kissed the snake, have been displeased with my rule, and now hire mercenaries to show your displeasure. Have I neared the mark?”

Sir Roger’s face twisted. “I will not be called a liar!” He began to draw his sword.

Mazael was faster. He stepped forward, seized Sir Roger’s wrist, and twisted. Sir Roger hissed, the sword dropping from his hand, and went white with pain.

“Drawing steel against your lord in his own hall?” said Mazael. Sir Roger tried to wrench away, but Mazael tightened his grip and twisted. “You’d abandon both guest right and your vows to your lord? It’s a fortunate thing I stopped you. Otherwise I could cut you down right now and no one would protest.”

Sir Roger wheezed and dropped to his knees.

“As your previous bailiff is guilty of murder,” said Mazael, “you’ll need a new one. Wat!”

The peasant gaped at Sir Roger. “My lord?”

“You’d make a fine bailiff, I believe,” said Mazael. “Henceforth, you are the bailiff of Bloody Ridge.”

Wat’s jaw dropped.

“Appointing the bailiff is my right!” groaned Sir Roger through clenched teeth.

“True,” said Mazael. “But, alas, the manor of Bloody Ridge seems insufficient for a knight of your stature.” He gestured to Sir Gerald, who barked a command. Two more armsmen hastened forward. “Until we find suitable lands for you, you’ll remain here, as my honored guest.” He let go.

Sir Roger toppled to the floor with a groan.

“Kindly see Sir Roger to his chambers,” said Mazael.

The two armsmen dragged the groaning Sir Roger away.

“As it happens,” said Mazael, “I would prefer that my vassals only take a fourth of their peasants’ crops.”

“My lord is generous,” said Wat, bowing, “most generous.”

“Sir Gerald,” said Mazael, “send Wat back to Bloody Ridge, with an appropriate escort of armsmen. He will have to remove the former bailiff, after all.”

Gerald gave the orders. Wat left the hall, half-weeping with gratitude.

Mazael sighed and glanced up at the balcony. Lucan smirked, and moved his hands in mocking applause. Then he turned and vanished in a swirl of black cloak.

“Lord Thomas Malacast,” called Sir Aulus, thumping his herald’s staff against the stone floor, “of Graywind Hold, seeking the Justiciar manor that bordered upon his estate.”

Mazael sighed.

 

###

 

Hours later, court concluded, Mazael dropped into Mitor’s old throne with a sigh, looping his leg over the carved arm. “By all the gods, Adalar, get me some wine.”

Adalar glanced at a page, who dashed from the hall.

“Thirsty?” said Gerald, Rachel on his arm. His squire Wesson followed after, still carrying Gerald’s shield.

“I could drink a damned river,” said Mazael. “Preferably of wine.”

The pages returned, bearing a flagon and a goblet of wine. Mazael took the goblet, drained it, and gestured for the page to refill it.

“What are you going to do with Sir Roger?” said Gerald.

“I haven’t decided yet,” said Mazael. “I could banish him, but he’d only raise a band of brigands and make trouble. I could keep him imprisoned indefinitely.” He shrugged, took another drink of wine. “Or perhaps I’ll hand him over to Lord Richard.”

“Maybe…” Rachel hesitated, looking away, “maybe you should just kill him.”

“Rachel!” said Gerald, looking shocked. “A man under Mazael’s own roof!”

“He did draw his sword in the hall,” said Rachel. “And he’s…he’s…” She sighed and shook her head, dark hair sliding over her shoulders. “I look at him and fear that he’ll bring woe upon us in the future.”

“He’s powerless enough, locked in the north tower,” said Mazael. “He can’t harm us from there.”

“I know,” said Rachel. “It’s just…”

“I’ll have close watch kept over him,” said Mazael. “Perhaps even have Lucan watch him.”

“No!” said Rachel.

“Why not?”

“I don’t trust Lucan Mandragon,” said Rachel. “He’s Richard Mandragon’s son, for one.”

“That’s hardly a crime,” said Mazael, “and it’s only by Lord Richard’s sufferance that we still live.”

“I know,” said Rachel, sighing, “I know. Lucan frightens me, Mazael.”

“I agree with my betrothed,” said Gerald. “The Dragon’s Shadow is not to be trusted.”

Mazael glanced at the balconies, but saw no sign of Lucan. “Why not?”

“Rumor has it that he is a powerful necromancer, nearly the equal of Simonian,” said Gerald.

“Rumors say many things,” said Mazael.

“And…and I see no fear in him,” said Rachel. “Of anyone, or anything. Nothing but contempt. I…think he might betray you, one day.” She stared at her hands. “Don’t you remember? You told me that Lord Richard promised Castle Cravenlock to Lucan, if you died in battle.”

Mazael said nothing.

 

###

 

The bas-reliefs had been smashed, the statues broken, the graven images shattered, their rubble used to choke the entrances leading into the temple. Now the corridors, the storerooms, the libraries, the dungeons, and the great temple chamber lay dark and silent. The titanic golden serpent-idol, an image of the snake-god Sepharivaim, had been melted, the gold buried. Only one narrow spiral stairwell led up to the castle.

Once the staircase had been filled with rubble, the San-keth temple would lie buried and forgotten forever.

Or, Lucan Mandragon mused, so Mazael Cravenlock thought.

A boot scraped against stone. Timothy deBlanc came down the stairs, brushing dust from his black coat, a lantern blazing his hand.

“Timothy,” said Lucan, inclining his head.

“Lucan,” said Timothy. He coughed and waved a hand in front of his face. “I’ll be pleased when we’re done with this place. I’ve had quite enough.”

“Fear not,” said Lucan, taking the lantern and holding it aloft. “Another day’s work, and you’ll never need to set foot in here again.”

Of course, Lucan himself intended to return frequently.

He had long needed a secret place to work without interruption. He had used the vaults under Swordgrim, but his ever-suspicious father knew about it, and Lucan’s labors had been hampered to no end. But here, if everyone believed the San-keth temple sealed and forgotten, Lucan could come and go as he pleased.

“Another case of those books and scrolls to destroy,” said Timothy, “and we’ll be done.”

“Or so we think,” said Lucan, adjusting his cloak. “I think it would be wise to cast your divinatory spell once again. We may have missed something.”

“We were very thorough,” said Timothy, frowning.

“Yet we may have missed something,” said Lucan, “and it would not reflect well upon us if we left some evil tome to torment future generations.”

Timothy nodded, rubbing his goatee. “You’re likely right. A moment.” He stepped back, pulled a quartz crystal from his pocket, and wrapped it with a length of silver wire. He stepped back, closed his eyes, and began muttering, gesturing with the wire-wrapped crystal. Lucan watched, following the motions of the crystal, feeling the gathering of arcane power as Timothy continued the spell.

The crystal flashed and shimmered. Timothy spoke the last word of the spell and shuddered. The crystal blazed with silver light and went dim. Lucan watched Timothy, ready with a spell of his own.

“Nothing,” said Timothy, wiping sweat from his brow. “Rather, nothing else. I sense only the last shelf in the temple’s library. Nothing more.”

Lucan nodded, hiding a smile of relief.

Timothy had not sensed the cache of books and scrolls Lucan had hidden. The temple’s library had proven a marvelous depository of arcane and necromantic lore. Lucan could not let such a treasure trove escape his grasp.

“Good,” said Lucan, “good. No reason to become careless, especially before the end.”

“A rule applicable to so many situations,” said Timothy.

“Quite right,” said Lucan, gesturing at the door to the temple’s library. “Shall we?”

They walked down the vaulted corridor and into the temple’s library. Ancient bookshelves lined the walls, mantled in shadows and dust. A single shelf held crumbling tomes and bound scrolls. Lucan walked in a circle around the walls, lighting the torches. Timothy gathered up an armful of books and scrolls and dumped them on the long table running the center of the room. Lucan set the lantern on the table, sat down, and they began work.

Lucan muttered the spell to sense magic over a scroll. “A simple warding, no more.” He handed it to Timothy. The older man nodded, lit a brass brazier with the lantern, and tossed the scroll into the coals. The scroll snarled with raging green and blue flames for a moment, then crumbled into embers.

Timothy muttered the same spell, tracing a sigil over a closed book. “Ah…a necromantic ward. You’d best do this one, Lucan.”

Lucan grunted and examined the book, probing the spell. It was a petty necromantic trick, designed to shrivel the arm of anyone who opened the cover. He shielded himself in a ward and opened the cover. The necromantic enchantment spat green flames, but fizzled against Lucan’s protections.

“High Tristafellin,” mused Lucan, examining the writing. He shook his head in disgust. “Bastardized. Some pages in San-keth, probably added later.” He flipped through the book. It held simple and feeble spells, the sort any idle dilettante might master.

“Perhaps the oft-copied remnants of a work that may have existed in the time of Tristafel,” suggested Timothy, tossing a bundle of ragged parchments into the brazier. A glowing snarl of crimson smoke shot upward, lashed against the ceiling, and vanished. “Certainly we’ve seen other books of that nature.”

“Certainly,” said Lucan.

Something on the last page caught his eye, a spell written in San-keth.

“Verily,” read the spell’s description, “many creatures of diverse natures do throng the world, cunning in deception, and servant of Sepharivaim may find himself hard-pressed to tell the True People from the lesser races. Therefore, a skilled adept may perform this ritual, upon a few drops of blood, to learn the true nature of a soul, whether of the True People, mortal men, elder race, and demon-blooded…”

Lucan gazed at the spell with interest.

“Lucan? Is something amiss?”

Lucan looked up. Timothy stared at him with concern, half-rising from his chair.

“I am well,” said Lucan. He tipped the book back.

“I feared you had been beguiled by some enchantment.”

Lucan laughed. “Certainly not.” In one swift motion he tore the page with the spell free, concealed it in his cloak, and tossed the book into the flames. It shuddered with sparks and purple flames, flared with gray light, and then crumbled into glowing dust. “I fail to see how anyone could find value in these scribbled ravings.”

“I quite agree,” said Timothy, squinting at a tattered scroll. “Lord Mazael was most insistent that they be destroyed. These books are too dangerous.”

“Yes,” murmured Lucan.

Lord Mazael.

Now there was an enigma. The man mystified him. Mazael Cravenlock had been a landless, rogue knight before becoming a lord. Lucan had dealt with dozens of such men, and they were almost always bloodthirsty and rapacious, eager to expand their wealth and power, whatever the cost.

Yet Mazael wanted peace between Lord Richard and Lord Malden. He could have sided with Lord Malden against Lord Richard. Or he could have broken his old ties with Lord Malden and attacked Knightrealm in Lord Richard’s name.

Yet Mazael refused to do either. Such altruistic behavior made Lucan suspicious. What did Lord Mazael really want?

“Once we’ve finished with this,” said Timothy, tearing a scroll into pieces and tossing the shreds into the fire one by one, “we ought to focus further on the wards to sense the undead. Perhaps we should begin with the barbican and gates.”

“As you wish,” said Lucan, feigning interest. He rather doubted, though, that the San-keth or their minions would bother to come through the gate.

But something besides Lord Mazael’s apparent noble character troubled Lucan.

To Lucan’s magical senses, Mazael felt unusual, almost blurred, as if his spirit had been scarred by some potent spell.

Or as if two spirits inhabited his flesh.

And he seemed immune to the mindclouding spell Lucan used to move unobserved through the castle. Nor could Lucan read Mazael’s thoughts. His spells permitted Lucan to pluck thoughts from the minds of others, usually without much difficulty.

Yet to Lucan’s spells, Mazael’s mind felt like an impenetrable wall of molten iron.

“I’m grateful for your assistance,” said Timothy, “truly. You ought to be the court wizard, not I.”

Lucan looked up in surprise, jarred out his musings. “Oh?”

“Your skills far surpass my own,” said Timothy.

Lucan laughed. “They do. But what of that? You aren’t dreaded and loathed from one end of the Grim Marches to the other. The peasants don’t consider you a devil. ” A bit of anger rose in Lucan’s chest, and to his annoyance, it crept into his voice. He calmed himself and continued. “But it matters not. I would not be Lord Mazael’s court wizard, not even if he begged me.” He threw a book into the fire with a bit more force than necessary.

“Why is that?” said Timothy.

“Why is what?” said Lucan, watching the book burn.

“Why are you so feared?” said Timothy. He shrugged. “Certainly, you’re powerful. And wizards are feared everywhere, though more so in some lands that others.”

“I certainly will not be visiting Swordor or Mastaria,” said Lucan.

“Nor I,” said Timothy. “Neither the Knights Justiciar nor the Knights Dominiar are very favorable to our art. But that is not the point. Why do they fear you so?” He shrugged. “I see no reason for it, after all.”

“That is most kind,” said Lucan. He stared at the brazier for a moment. “Let us say…I had an unsavory teacher.”

One half of his mind laughed and gibbered. The other half recoiled in frightened horror.

“That wasn’t your fault,” said Timothy.

“No,” said Lucan, shaking himself. The dark laughter in his mind faded away. “It was not. But that matters very little.” He picked up the next scroll in the diminishing pile. “I wish to speak no more of this.”

“Of course,” said Timothy. “But if you wish to speak more of it, I will be glad to listen.”

Lucan smiled. The expression felt strange, almost alien, on his face. He did not often smile any more. “Thank you. I’ll remember that.” Of course, he had no intention of ever discussing his past with Timothy, or anyone.

But the thought pleased him, a little bit.

“We should resume work,” said Lucan, gesturing at the piled books.

Timothy nodded.

Lucan felt the torn page within his cloak and smiled.

Soon enough, he would solve the riddle of Lord Mazael Cravenlock.

 

3

Heir of Swordgrim

 

Mazael awoke with a headache and a foul taste in his mouth. He rolled out of bed, walked naked to the table against the wall, and washed out his mouth with a swallow of wine.

He rarely slept well, these days. The Old Demon no longer troubled him with spell-wrought nightmares, but feverish dreams had drifted across his mind like poisoned foam over fouled waters. He had dreamt of Sir Roger, his hands clamped about Rachel’s throat, and of giant snakes slithering through the foundations of Castle Cravenlock.

And he saw, over and over again, the killing flare of the Old Demon’s spell, saw Romaria topple before the chapel’s altar.

Mazael took another swallow of wine. For a moment he wanted to fall back into bed. Today would only bring another succession of scheming vassals and greedy lords. Why even bother? Lucan was right. It would end in blood or death, one way or another.

The thought repulsed him. Mazael growled and pushed the wine away. He had lands to rule and people to lead, and could not do so if he staggered about drunk.

It was still dark, though the sun had just begun to rise, and Adalar and the pages still lay asleep. Mazael saw no reason to wake them and dressed himself. He slipped down the stairs of the King’s Tower and into the chilly courtyard.

Gerald and Sir Nathan trained the armsmen and squires just after sunrise. Mazael tapped Lion’s pommel and grinned. He had spent too much time dealing with recalcitrant vassals and corrupt knights. A few hours spent thrashing his armsmen and knights would shake off his depression.

He glanced up at the curtain wall and stopped. Gerald and Sir Nathan stood atop the barbican gate, leaning against the battlements. Sir Nathan pointed over the wall, shaking his head. Mazael frowned and joined them.

“Trouble?” said Mazael.

“Possibly,” said Gerald. “We were just about to send for you.”

Sir Nathan pointed. “Look.”

Mazael saw the glimmer of campfires on the horizon. He made out the dark shapes of tents, hazy in the morning gloom.

“How many men?” said Mazael.

“A hundred, possibly,” said Sir Nathan. “Maybe one hundred and fifty.”

“More mercenaries?” said Gerald.

Sir Nathan shook his head. “The camp is too orderly.”

“Then who?” said Gerald.

Mazael shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The sun crept up, inch by inch, and Mazael saw dozens of tethered horses. Figures moved back and forth through the camp. He saw a banner flapping over the tents, though it was too dark to make out details.

“If they take it into their heads to burn the town, they’re close enough to do it,” said Sir Nathan.

“Aye,” said Mazael. “Gerald. Rouse the squires and the knights. Get them ready. If our visitors ride for the town, we’ll sally out and stop them.”

Gerald ran from the ramparts.

“He shouldn’t run,” said Sir Nathan. “He ought to show confidence to his men.”

“Well, do you want to be armsmaster?”

“No.”

“Then he can run.”

Sir Nathan grunted, but said nothing more. The courtyards clattered and echoed as squires led out the horses from the stables, as knights donned armor and helm, picked up sword and shield. In the camp men rolled up tents and mounted horses.

Mazael folded his arms and waited.

The sun brightened, and Mazael saw the black sigil on the red banner.

He swore softly.

“We should prepare a welcome,” said Sir Nathan.

Mazael saw a black-armored figure emerge from a tent, swing onto a magnificent destrier. “Or maybe we should stay armed.”

“Is that not Lord Richard?” said Sir Nathan.

Mazael shook his head. “No. I might have preferred rogue mercenaries. They would have been easier to handle than Toraine Mandragon.”

A flicker of surprise went over Sir Nathan’s face. “What would Toraine want here?”

“I don’t know,” said Mazael. Why had Lord Richard’s eldest son come here? Toraine’s party began riding for the castle, the Mandragon banner flapping overhead. “Let’s go find out.”

He descended to the courtyard, Sir Nathan at his side. Gerald emerged from the keep with Rachel on his arm. Mitor had considered marrying Rachel to Toraine, and Lord Richard had done likewise. Mazael hoped Gerald didn’t do anything rash.

Gerald gave orders, and armsmen moved into an honor guard around the gate. A few moments later a band of horsemen thundered into the courtyard, the Mandragon banner billowing overhead. A dozen knights in gleaming plate followed. In their midst rode a tall man in a strange combination of black chain and dull black plate, riding the most expensive destrier Mazael had ever seen. The rider reined up, pulled off his helmet, and vaulted from the saddle in a single fluid movement. He had piercing black eyes, red hair, and a trimmed beard like a spike of flame.

He looked a lot like Lucan Mandragon, except taller, stronger, and more striking. And where Lucan’s expression seemed contemptuous, Toraine’s resembled that of a rabid wolf.

Men often said that Toraine was not Demonsouled, but ought to be.

“Lord Heir,” said Mazael, inclining his head, using the title Toraine Mandragon insisted upon.

“Lord Mazael,” said Toraine, a cold glint in his eye. “My father’s favorite vassal. I thought you’d look fatter after a year ruling this,” he gestured at the castle’s tower, “ugly heap. But you look wasted away. Pity.” He thrust out his helmet. A squire in Mandragon livery took it. “Pity indeed. You know, if fat Mitor had managed to kill you instead of the other way around…”

“I didn’t kill Mitor,” said Mazael.

“Oh, of course,” said Toraine. His smirk resembled Lucan’s. “If Mitor had killed you, then my father would have killed Mitor.” He gestured at the castle again. “Then my father would have given Castle Cravenlock to me. Though I would have torn this wreck down and begun from scratch.”

Mazael returned Toraine’s smirk. “But as if happened, Skhath killed Mitor, I survived, and Castle Cravenlock is mine, not yours.”

Mazael saw Rachel’s knuckles whiten as she gripped Gerald’s hand.

Toraine scowled. “You’re not frightened of me, are you?”

“No,” said Mazael. Toraine’s squires flinched. “Should I be? You’re my liege lord’s eldest son. Assuming we both live long enough, you’ll be my liege lord, one day. We ought to be the closest of friends.”

“Even my closest friends are frightened of me, and rightly,” said Toraine, sounding thoughtful. “You should be too.”

“Whatever for?” said a scornful voice. “I see no reason to be frightened. Amused, perhaps, but not frightened.”

Lucan stepped past Rachel and Gerald, adjusting his black cloak.

Anger flashed across Toraine’s face, vanishing behind his smirk. “Why, brother. It has been too long.”

“It has been a year,” said Lucan, “and not at all long enough.”

“Not long enough?” said Toraine. “I had thought you would want to return to Swordgrim and end your banishment.”

“It was not banishment, as you well know,” said Lucan. “I am weary of Swordgrim and weary of you, my dear brother. Or had you forgotten that? Just as you seem to have forgotten that our lord father promised Castle Cravenlock to me if Lord Mazael fell, not to you.”

Toraine laughed, his eyes narrowed. “Then you ought to count yourself lucky, Lord Mazael. Those Lucan finds inconvenient tend to die most mysteriously.”

“I find you inconvenient, not mention dull and tiresome,” said Lucan, his glower a dark mirror of Toraine’s, “and yet you still live.”

Toraine’s hand dropped to the hilt of the curved blade at his belt. “A threat against your future liege lord, brother? I ought to strike you dead for that.”

“You are not my liege lord yet,” said Lucan. “You have to outlive our lord father first. A doubtful proposition, that.” His voice hardened. “And I remember what I promised you, after Tymaen’s wedding. Raise a hand against me and I’ll wither the flesh on your bones.”

Toraine snarled, drew his sword, and took a step forward. Lucan sneered and raised his hand, muttering under his breath. Things might have gone very bad, but Mazael stepped between them, grabbed Lucan’s wrist, and seized Toraine’s sword arm.

The two brothers glared at Mazael.

“Enough of this!” said Mazael.

“You dare lay a hand on the Heir of Swordgrim!” spat Toraine, eyes blazing with fury.

“I don’t give a damn if you’re the High King and Lucan’s the Patriarch of the Amathavian Church!” said Mazael. “I am the Lord of Castle Cravenlock, not you, not him, and I will not have blood spilled in my courtyard! Do you understand? Raise a hand against each other, and I’ll kill both of you and deal with Lord Richard later.”

Both sons of Richard Mandragon gaped at Mazael as if he’d gone mad.

Then Lucan laughed and shook free of Mazael’s grip. “I believe you’re serious, Lord Mazael.” He laughed again. “It would almost be amusing to watch.”

Toraine just stared at Mazael, eyes furious. Mazael realized that he had made an enemy.

It didn’t trouble him. Toraine had never been friendly, anyway.

Toraine turned and bowed to Rachel. “My fair lady,” he said. “You look as radiant as I remember.” He took her hand and kissed it.

Gerald’s eyes narrowed.

“Thank you, Lord Heir,” said Rachel. Her voice only trembled a bit.

Toraine glanced at Gerald, smirked. “Lord Malden’s youngest son, eh?”

“I am Sir Gerald Roland.”

Toraine ignored him and kept speaking to Rachel. “Youngest sons are never important.” He glared at Lucan. “No doubt Sir Gerald will become lord of some rock on Knightrealm’s coast. You can sit at his side as he rules over dead fish and seagulls. And you could have been the lady of the Grim Marches.” He shook his head and stepped back.

“I’m quite happy, my lord Heir,” said Rachel.

“And what concern is that of mine?” snapped Toraine. He turned to Mazael. “I will lodge here for three or four days, I think. Long enough to meet this emissary Lord Malden dispatched. Sir Tobias, yes?”

Mazael tried not to wince. The thought of Toraine Mandragon and Sir Tobias Roland in the same room was alarming. “I believe so.”

“Excellent,” said Toraine. He gestured, and the rest of his party filed through the gate. Mazael saw thirty knights, a number of armsmen, some ragged merchants, and a large band of whores. “Walk with me, Lord Mazael. Alone. We have things to discuss.”

“As you wish,” said Mazael. Gerald and Master Cramton hurried forward, directing the knights to the stables.

Toraine wandered across the courtyard, leaving Mazael with no choice but to follow. They climbed to the battlements, Toraine’s red cloak, emblazoned with a black dragon, flaring out behind him. Toraine reached the ramparts and strolled with a proprietary air, running his hand along the cold stone battlements.

“You seem to have attracted quite a few followers,” said Mazael, looking at the merchants and whores in Toraine’s party.

Toraine laughed. “They have their uses. The common folk are drawn to our power, like maggots to meat. When I am finished with them, I will discard them and take new ones.”

Mazael’s lips thinned. “No doubt.”

“I assume you’re wondering why I’ve come,” said Toraine, “as I have far better things to do than to loiter about backwater castles.”

“I assume Lord Richard commanded you,” said Mazael.

Toraine’s obsidian eyes narrowed. “My father does not command me in all matters.”

“Yes, but in most matters,” said Mazael, “he keeps you on a short leash. Else you’d have razed most of the neighboring lands, alienated your father’s vassals, and gotten yourself killed or assassinated.”

Toraine whirled and glared, face inches from Mazael’s “You ought to speak with more respect.”

“I speak forthrightly,” said Mazael, “as I do with Lord Richard. Shall I do any less with you? Though Lord Richard does accept counsel more calmly than you.”

Toraine stepped back, but his glare did not waver. Mazael felt a wave of disgusted disquiet. Lord Richard was a vigorous man in his mid-forties, likely to rule for at least another score of years. Yet disease and mishap were all too common. Suppose Lord Richard died and Toraine became the new lord of the Grim Marches? Or suppose Toraine had Lord Richard assassinated and seized the lordship?

One day Mazael might find himself fighting this young madman.

For a brief moment Mazael considered shoving Toraine from the rampart. Better to kill him here and now, before Toraine had the chance to lead thousands of others to death. Mazael could claim it was an accident. Lord Richard would believe the lie…

His hands had tightened into fists before he stopped in horror. Random, sudden murder was the way of his Demonsouled blood. He would not give in to it. Romaria had died to free him from its curse, and by all the gods, he would not make her sacrifice meaningless.

“Ill, Lord Mazael?” said Toraine, watching him with an expression of guarded caution. Perhaps he had divined something of Mazael’s thoughts. “Or distracted?” He smiled. “Some of my whores are most skilled…”

“Enough,” growled Mazael, shaking his head. “We argue all day, and as you’ve said, I have better things to do. Why did Lord Richard send you here?”

Toraine looked at Rachel and Gerald, who stood speaking with Toraine’s knights. “Your sister’s marriage to this Roland.”

“What of it?” said Mazael. “Lord Richard gave his assent, if grudgingly.”

“Yes,” said Toraine. “Why do you plan to wed your sister to a son of my father’s mortal enemy?”

“Simply because your father and Gerald’s are mortal enemies, and their strength is evenly matched” said Mazael. “Castle Cravenlock is the second strongest lordship in the Grim Marches, after Swordgrim. Without my help, Lord Richard cannot fight Knightrealm. And unless I aid Lord Malden, he cannot fight the Grim Marches.”

“Yes,” said Toraine, his smirk returning. “Unless you aid Lord Malden, unless you betray the Mandragons, they will be no war.”

“And I won’t,” said Mazael, “so there will be no war.”

“Unless you betray us,” said Toraine.

“I gave Lord Richard my sworn word,” said Mazael, voice hardening.

Toraine laughed. “And what worth has sworn word? Your brother swore to my father, as well.” He laughed again. “And he joined the snake-kissers, and would have sought Knightcastle’s aid, if Lord Malden hadn’t been too wise to support such a fool.” He grinned. “You want to know why I’m here, Lord Mazael?”

Mazael said nothing.

“If you betray my father, then you will have to contend with me.”

Mazael still said nothing.

“They call me the Black Dragon for good reason. If you betray us, I’ll fall on your lands like a storm. I will burn your crops, raze your villages, slaughter your peasants like sheep. I’ll take this castle for my own. Then I’ll hunt you down. I’ll take your sister, rape her bloody, and throw her to my men when I’m finished with her. And then I’ll kill you.”

Now Mazael glared into Toraine’s eyes. “I won’t betray Lord Richard. I don’t want war between Knightrealm and the Grim Marches. And by all the gods, I swear that if you do any of that…if you raise a finger against my sister…if you even so much as give her a threatening glance, then I will kill you.”

Toraine looked away first. “Twice you’ve threatened to kill me today.”

“Not threatened,” said Mazael, “but promised. And only if you threaten me first.” He gestured at the castle. “No doubt you’re weary from the journey. I’ll have a page see you to your chambers.”

“I am not weary,” said Toraine, “and feel the need to stretch my muscles. Your armsmaster trains the men in the morning, no? Perhaps I shall train with them.”

Mazael gritted his teeth. “As you wish.”

 

###

 

Sir Roger Gravesend paced his tower cell, scowling.

Of course, it wasn’t really a cell. It had rich carpets, ornate tapestries, comfortable chairs, and large bed. He had as much wine as he wished, and in fact spent most of his time drunk.

But it was a cell, just the same.

Sir Roger filled his goblet again and drained it in a swift gulp.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” he mumbled. “They promised me.” The room began to spin. He refilled his goblet, wine splashing across his tunic, and staggered to a chair. “They betrayed me.”

The door opened. A serving girl in rough homespun entered, curtsied, and laid a platter of meat, bread, and dried fruit on the table.

“They said it was just the beginning,” mumbled Sir Roger, oblivious to the serving girl, “they’d help me.” He took a long drink of wine and slammed the goblet against the arm of the chair. “They betrayed me!”

“Perhaps they haven’t, sir knight,” murmured the serving girl.

Sir Roger looked up. “What? What did you say?”

“Maybe they haven’t abandoned you,” she said, looking at him.

Sir Roger smiled. The girl looked about fifteen or sixteen. “You’re a comely wench.” He beckoned. “Why don’t you come over here, eh? We’ll have ourselves a good time.”

She  gave him a shy smile, swayed across the room, and settled on his lap. A wide, unsteady grin spread across his face.

“We’ll have ourselves a good time tonight, we surely will,” whispered the girl. “And they didn’t betray you, sir knight.”

Sir Roger blinked. “What?”

“Why don’t you open the front of my dress?” cooed the girl, nipping at his ear. She leaned back and smiled.

Sir Roger grinned back and fumbled for the leather ties at her throat. The front of her dress fell open. Sir Roger licked his lips, and reached for her breast.

His hand froze a few inches from the pale skin, his jaw dropping open in sudden alarm.

Above her left breast, over her heart, rested the small mark of a coiled serpent.

Sir Roger looked at the girl’s face.

Her eyes flashed yellow and he caught a glimpse of pointed, dripping fangs.

“Oh, gods!” shrieked Sir Roger, rocking back into the chair. “Get off me. Get off me!” He tried to push her away, but the girl’s hands locked about his wrists like iron bands, slamming his arms against the chair.

She leaned forward, face against his, and ran the pointed tips of her fangs down his cheek.

“You need a shave, sir knight,” purred the girl.

“Don’t kill me,” said Sir Roger, sweating. “I didn’t betray our master,” her fangs pressed deeper, “don’t kill me, please, don’t…”

“Sir Roger,” said the girl, leaning back, “we know you didn’t betray us.” She pulled her dress open wider. On her shoulder rested a small black mark, the sigil of a serpent wrapped about a cloak-black fang.

“You…you serve the holy one Blackfang?” said Sir Roger, awed. “He is coming himself?”

“He is,” said the girl, closing her dress. “The time has come, faithful Roger Gravesend. The enemies of our faith will pay tonight. Lord Mazael Cravenlock shall die for the murder of holy Skhath. Rachel Cravenlock shall die for her apostasy. And both Lucan and Toraine Mandragon shall die, for their father’s crimes against the priests of great Sepharivaim.”

“Toraine Mandragon is here?” said Sir Roger.

“He is,” said the girl, “come to threaten Mazael.”

“But…but Lucan Mandragon is a powerful wizard. Extremely dangerous. All folk hold him in fear…”

The girl scoffed. “Do you think his puny arts can threaten a servant of great Sepharivaim?”

“No, no, of course not,” said Sir Roger.

“They will die tonight,” said the girl, “and you, faithful Roger, shall have your freedom, and great reward for your loyalty to the servants of mighty Sepharivaim.” She smiled, eyes glinting yellow. “Perhaps we will arrange for you to become the new Lord of Castle Cravenlock.” She slid off him. “Wait for us. Be ready.”

She vanished through the door in a swirl of skirts.

Sir Roger stared after her, and took another swallow of wine.

 

###

 

Wood clacked against wood.

Men crowded the courtyard before the castle’s barracks. In one corner the armsmen drilled with halberds and spears, under the scowling gaze of grizzled sergeants. Archery butts had been lined against the curtain wall, and crossbowmen sent bolts thudding into the straw. Before the steps of the barracks the squires and pages stood in pairs, crossing wooden practice swords. Sir Gerald and Sir Nathan stood on the stairs, overseeing everything.

Mazael walked towards the barracks, Toraine Mandragon at his side. Toraine strolled unconcerned through the various melees. Rumor had it that the dull black plates of his armor were the scales of a black dragon, a black dragon slain upon Toraine’s blade, the scales capable of deflecting almost anything.

“How orderly,” said Toraine, observing the crossbowmen.

“The Lord Heir approves, then?” said Mazael.

Toraine gave a thin smile. “Such effort. I might think you were training an army for rebellion. But I have your protestations of loyalty, of course.”

Mazael almost wished he had let Lucan and Toraine come to blows.

“Do you ever participate?” said Toraine. “Such a mighty lord as yourself. You must be able to defeat any man in this castle.”

“Sometimes,” said Mazael, “when the mood takes me. Usually I spar with some of my most trusted knights.”

“Prudent, perhaps,” said Toraine, “for you never know when a man will take the opportunity to shove steel down your gullet. But mayhap it is foolish. Your skills will have gone to rust.”

“Is that your concern?” said Mazael. “It’s not as if we will ever war against each other, of course.”

“Of course,” said Toraine, smirking. “But, come, I feel the need for exercise. Let us train against each other.”

Some of the squires and armsmen stopped to stare at them.

“My lord Heir?” said Mazael.

“It has been a while since you faced a proper challenge, I think,” said Toraine, snapping his fingers. Two of his squires removed his cloak. “Let us see the mettle of Castle Cravenlock’s lord.”

“As you wish,” said Mazael. “Adalar!” Adalar broke free from the squires and ran to Mazael’s side. “My armor. And two practice swords.”

“Practice swords?” scoffed Toraine. “Are we boys, to play with sticks? Proper steel, I think.” He thumped the pommel of his sword.

Adalar and two pages returned with Mazael’s mail hauberk, cuirass, and gauntlets. “I’ve no wish hurt you by mischance, lord Heir.”

Toraine smiled. “You won’t.”

“And shall we just gut each other, then?” said Mazael. “Or fight until first blood?”

“I doubt my father would appreciate it if I spilled Cravenlock blood here,” said Toraine. He tapped his chest. “No, a simple tap to the breastplate will suffice.” He watched as Adalar carried over Mazael’s armor. “Assuming that can block a sword thrust, of course.”

More silence fell over the courtyard as the squires and armsmen drifted over to watch. Mazael gritted his teeth and wished Sir Nathan would order them back to work. It reminded him too much of his fight with Skhath, when the San-keth priest had still cloaked himself in the illusion of a human knight.

Mazael pulled on his armor, aided by Adalar. Toraine stepped back and drew his sword, settling into a guard position. His squires hastened forward and undid his sword belt, lest his scabbard entangle his legs. Toraine held a long sword with curved blade, the light, fast saber favored by the nomads of the south. Mazael drew Lion, the blade glimmering with a cold blue sheen.

Toraine stepped forward, sword held in both hands, the blade before his face. “Ready, Lord Mazael?”

Mazael dropped into a light crouch, body sideways, Lion out before him. “If you are!”

Toraine moved in a blur of black armor and red hair, chopping at Mazael’s face. Mazael sidestepped, parried, and thrust for Toraine’s throat. Toraine pushed Lion down, spun, and brought his saber down for an overhead chop. The swords clanged and rang with the effort of the battle.

Toraine stepped back, saber point tracing figure-eights. “Fast, for an old man.”

“I’m but ten years your senior,” said Mazael, circling Toraine. Toraine began circling him in return, neither his eyes nor his blade wavering. “Boy.”

Toraine sprang forward, feinted for Mazael’s head, and dropped his strike low. Mazael kicked the flat of the blade aside and stabbed. Toraine twisted away, sword flailing.

“Poor form,” growled Toraine, “using your boot in such a manner.”

“In battle,” said Mazael, feinting for Toraine’s arm, Toraine stepping aside, “form matters less than who still’s standing when it’s all over. You’ve killed enough people. I thought you’d know that.”

Toraine growled, his eyes blazing, and flung himself at Mazael. His saber flashed high, low, whirling in steel spirals. Mazael blocked and ducked and parried, Lion clanging in his hands. Toraine’s momentum played out, and Mazael spun and threw a two-handed chop that Toraine’s saber barely turned.

They reeled back and forth in the ragged circle, Toraine’s saber flashing and stabbing against Lion’s blade. Mazael’s blood pumped through his arms, his breath deep and strong. Despite himself, he began to enjoy the swordplay. Toraine moved his blade with masterful skill, perhaps better than almost anyone in Castle Cravenlock. It had been a long time since Mazael had faced a serious challenge. Even the battles against the scattered mercenaries had been little more than organized slaughter.

Bit by bit, Mazael probed the edge of Toraine’s defenses, Lion’s blade flashing. Toraine had skill, but lacked Mazael’s experience. He did not vary his defensive moves. Mazael thrust and swung, following Toraine’s defenses, preparing his winning blow.

Then something slammed hard into his back.

Mazael stumbled, pain bursting through his shoulders. He dropped to one knee, even as Toraine’s thrust screamed past and tore a ragged furrow across Mazael’s left bicep. Toraine overbalanced, surprise and triumph and alarm mingled on his face. Agony spread through Mazael’s arm.

Rage exploded within him, turned his blood to howling flame.

Mazael leapt back to his feet with a roar and a surge of speed, backhanding Toraine across the face, and the younger man fell back with a groan of pain. Lion gleamed, and Mazael raised it high, ready to ram it through Toraine’s eye, ready to watch blood and brains splash across the courtyard earth…

“Mazael!”

He blinked.

Rachel gripped his arm, staring at him with a worried expression. Gerald was at her side, sword half drawn.

“Rachel?” said Mazael. He scarce recognized his own voice. Blood dripped from the cut on his arm, soaking into the ground. Toraine stared up at him, breathing hard, hands raised in guard. He looked terrified.

“For gods’ sake, don’t kill him,” said Rachel, pleading. “It was just a cut. Just a little blood. It’ll heal.”

“Blood,” croaked Mazael, looking down at Toraine. He watched his dripping blood spatter on the ground.

His blood…

With a surge of horror, Mazael realized that his Demonsouled blood had almost taken hold of him once more, had almost driven him to murder in a blind rage.

It had almost made Romaria’s sacrifice worthless.

Disgusted and ashamed, he stepped back, picking up Toraine’s saber.

Toraine climbed to his feet, rubbing his jaw. “Well.” His voice had a slight tremor. “So this is the famous rage of Mazael Cravenlock. Quite impressive.”

Mazael reversed the blade and handed the hilt to Toraine. “My apologies. I did not mean to frighten you.”

“You didn’t,” said Toraine. “I…suppose it was my fault. I shouldn’t have thrust when you stumbled.”

A fresh flicker of rage awoke in Mazael’s mind. “Someone pushed me.”

“Who would dare? You lost your balance, surely,” said Toraine, still rubbing his jaw.

“Someone pushed me,” said Mazael, “I’m sure.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Rachel. “We’d best get your arm bandaged. Adalar!” Mazael’s squire hurried to her side. “Get Timothy at once!”

“My lady.” Adalar dashed away.

“I think perhaps I will retire to those guest chambers now,” said Toraine. “Getting knocked to the ground does rather knock the wind from a man.”

“Of course.” Mazael ordered a page to show Toraine to the guest chambers in the southwestern tower. Timothy appeared, face furrowed with concern, and began clucking over the cut in Mazael’s arm. Mazael endured the ministrations, brooding. Timothy cleaned the wound and wound bandages about it.

He cursed his folly. What hope of peace might the Grim Marches have if he cut down Lord Richard’s son in a blind fury? Lord Richard would seek vengeance, and Mazael would have no choice but to seek Lord Malden’s aid, and then the Grim Marches would drown in blood and war.

And how would the Old Demon exploit such a bloodletting?

Mazael sighed.

“You look pale. I hope the wound doesn’t fester,” said Rachel, still frowning.

“It won’t,” said Mazael.

“Your confidence flatters me, my lord,” said Timothy.

Mazael had the utmost confidence in Timothy, but that didn’t matter.

The power in his Demonsouled blood healed even the most grievous wounds.

And even as Timothy finished, the wound closed beneath the bandage, the skin knitting together of its own accord.

“Let us have some breakfast,” said Rachel, touching his arm.

“You look thirsty, after all,” said Gerald, trying to smile.

Mazael nodded and let Rachel lead him to the great hall.

 

###

 

Some time later, Lucan Mandragon strolled through the deserted courtyard, wrapped in his mindclouding spell and his dark cloak.

It had been a risk, though a slight one, to strike Mazael with the spell from behind. Lucan’s mindclouding permitted him to stand ignored in the crowd of spectators, but Mazael had always been able to see through it. Fortunately, Mazael’s attention had always been focused on Toraine.

Of course, Mazael might have killed Toraine in his wrath.

Lucan laughed. That had would have been less of risk and more of a pleasant surprise. But, still, Lucan wanted peace as much as Mazael, and Toraine’s death would hardly help.

He stopped where Toraine and Mazael had fought. A few drops of dried blood stained the earth. Lucan’s cold smile widened as he knelt. He produced a dagger and scraped the bloodstained dirt into a pouch.

“Now, my lord Mazael,” said Lucan, rising, “we’ll find things out, will we not?”

He remembered Mazael’s furious rage, the murderous light in his eyes, and Lucan’s smile vanished in a sudden chill.

He had never encountered such fury before, though he had read of it, and suspected its source.

“Yes, Lord Mazael,” he murmured, flexing his fingers, fingers that could conjure a score of lethal spells, “we’ll find out, will we not?”

10 thoughts on ““Soul of Tyrants” excerpt

  1. Jerry

    I was very impressed with the ease with which story flowed from one to another, I shall look forward to continue reading this and all that follow. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. jmoellerwriter Post author

      Thanks for the kind words about the book!

      I’m hoping to have the next DEMONSOULED book, SOUL OF SORCERY, available by the end of September or the beginning of October.

      Reply
    1. jmoellerwriter Post author

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked it.

      There are currently six books in the series, and the seventh and final one should be out in the first week of June.

      Reply
  2. Keith Terceira

    Just finished the first and went and bought the rest at Barnes and Noble for my nook… Problem is I can’t put them down and I’m walking into things constantly. THese books should come with a disclaimer and a waiver form.

    Reply
    1. jmoellerwriter Post author

      Ha! Well, I hope you were not injured. Perhaps future Nook models will include a proximity sensor for just that problem.

      Thanks for the kind words about the books, and I’m glad you like them!

      Reply
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