“War is a necessary evil. There is not a day or time when each of us does not battle some sort of enemy either within or around us. The true test of our character lies in the instant when we choose to either ignore or defeat that which seeks to destroy us. It is the same in our kingdom. Hirth has seen its share of battles and this great province has ridden the wings of freedom for many an age; however, there will come a day when an evil so immense will seek to threaten our very existence. It is then the knights of Gyllen Castle will rise to the aid of Hirth and defend all that is dear – our families, our land, and our right to survive. When such a time comes, I will fight with honor and for glory and give my life, if my forfeiture of it will allow Hirth the chance to endure in peace. And while I know that the enemy may prevail and my life be extinguished from this body, my death will not be in vain for what is more honorable than giving one’s life for love of family, country…and freedom.”
Sir Trogsdill Domnall.
If Eric had known what the daylight would bring after the nightmares ended, he would have remained in bed, the covers pulled over his head.
Instead, he waded through the puddles of the castle’s upper courtyard, each gong from the clock tower further coiling his stomach into knots. Sloshing along beside him, down the aisle of topiaries and statues, was his best friend, a devilish lad with unkempt hair the color of dirt and a cock-eyed grin.
“I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry,” Sestian said, polishing an apple on his sleeve. “Weapons class began fifteen minutes ago. Master Mafi won’t allow us in.” The apple crunched in his teeth.
“You don’t understand, Ses. I have to try.” Eric swatted at the spindly arms of a willow tree. “This will be the third day in a row I missed. If I don’t go, word will get back to Trog and he’ll flog me. You know how he gets.”
“You worry too much. He’d never physically hurt you, however, I do have to admit, he is quite an odd fellow. I saw him make another midnight trek to the fountain last night. He sat there all hunched over like he’d lost his best friend, then he stood, dropped a rose in the water, and left.”
Eric’s muscles bunched under his light shirt, his brow pinched. “That is bizarre, even for him.”
“Want to hear something even more bizarre?” Sestian paused, took another bite of the apple and buried the core in a potted plant. “I overheard Trog and my own headache of a master talking this morning. I believe the exact words out of Farnsworth’s mouth were, ‘Fallhollow is under attack’.”
Eric came to a stop, his eyes wide. “Attack? From who?”
Sestian shrugged. “Don’t know, but members of the Senate and the Mage’s High Council arrived an hour ago, including the Supreme Master himself. They’re meeting with the Order as we speak.”
“What?” Eric’s pulse quickened. “Jared’s here? You saw him?”
The grand mage of all magical beings never involved himself in the affairs of men. Ever.
“No, but I plan to change that.” An impish twinkle glistened in Sestian’s eyes. “Are you game?”
“What? You want to—you mean—you’re joking, right?”
The puckish grin on Sestian’s face answered his question.
Eric shook his head. “Oh, no. There is no way you’re going to get me to eavesdrop on a secret council meeting. I’d rather get hit by lightning than suffer the punishment from anyone sitting in that room.”
“Aww, come on, Eric. Must you always be so dull? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
“That sort of curiosity will land us in the pillory at best.” Eric pushed past his friend through the carved citadel doors. Sestian darted in front of him and stopped.
“My point is that I value my life.”
“And what of Fallhollow? Don’t you value our home?”
“Of course I do, but—”
“Then what are you waiting for?” Sestian punched Eric’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“Ses, no!” Eric’s protest fell on empty ears. His friend was gone.
Eric brushed past the lapis columns of the marble vestibule into the Great Hall, a wide-open space topped by a domed ceiling so high its ornate detail was almost lost in the darkness. Nobles and servants milled about, coming and going out of the many rooms, laughter echoing off the walls speckled with massive tapestries and oiled paintings. A flock of girls dressed in aristocratic finery stood upon the majestic staircase, twittering like excited canaries. One of them, Lady Emelia, a startling girl with red hair and striking features, waved at him and winked. Eric rolled his eyes and scurried down the hall past the stairs. The last thing he wanted or needed was a flighty girl choking his freedom.
He passed several lavish rooms before spotting his friend at the far end of the music room, leaning on a harp.
“What took you so long?” Sestian grinned, then pushed aside a wall tapestry and vanished through a secret door.
“Drat you, Ses. How do you find these things?” Eric glanced over his shoulder and followed.
Inside, Sestian struck a wooden match against the stone wall and lit a torch he plucked from an iron sconce. They climbed a set of narrow steps. The guttering flame of Sestian’s torch cast shadows on the walls. More than once the passageway twisted and turned as they ascended.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Eric asked.
Sestian laughed. “We’re in the heart of the castle and you’re going to ask that question now?”
They continued upward. After what seemed an eternity, the steps emptied onto the landing of a dark corridor filled with cobwebs. Sestian stopped and thrust the torch at Eric. “Hold this.” He spun a wall sconce in a combination of left and right turns until a latch popped, and a hidden door opened inward, exposing a small room filled with wooden crates.
“What the—?” Eric stepped inside, his mouth open.
Sestian placed his finger to his lips and motioned to a jagged hole the size of a man’s fist in the wall.
Curious, Eric squatted and peered through a banner of delicate silk.
“Dragon’s breath,” he whispered. “That’s the king’s arbitration room!” He flicked a sideways glance at Sestian. “How did you find this?”
“I don’t sleep much, remember?”
“Good heavens, you are crazy.”
A chair scraped across the wood floor below. Four mages, recognizable by their golden skin, turquoise eyes, and sapphire–blue garments, sat on one side of an immense oval table. Four senators clad in similar garments of purple and gold sat across from them. At one head of the table sat Trog and Farnsworth. At the other, a sojourner shrouded in black with silver rings upon his fingers and tattoos etched upon his hands. And at one of the five arched windows stood the sorceress, Slavandria, her thick lavender hair plaited in a single braid to the floor.
“Jared,” Eric said under his breath.
“Yep,” Sestian said. “That’d be my guess.”
Below, Trog leaned forward, his massive hands clasped together, and addressed the cloaked figure opposite him. “We will heed your warnings, Master Jared, and dispatch a legion to His Majesty’s entourage. I also think it wise to notify our neighbors to the north of the encroaching threat. If this enemy’s intentions are to see Hirth fall, he will attack our allies first to render our kingdom helpless.”
“Agreed.” Jared’s voice resonated deep within the chambers, and into Eric’s core. “Master Camden, see to it the kingdoms of Trent and Banning are informed of the possible threat. Also, instruct the shime to dispatch regiments and secure the borders of Hirth.”
“Do you feel that necessary?” replied the bald man clad in blue. “There is no proof the kingdom of Hirth or the realm of Fallhollow, for that matter, is under attack. There have only been a few isolated incidents of bloodshed, nothing that could be construed as acts of war.”
“Master Camden,” Jared said, “several families of barbegazis, nine unicorns, and over a hundred humans are dead all in the course of four days. This morning, patrols rescued a herd of pixies from a crow’s cage in the Elmwithian Marsh. They were swathed in dragon’s blood. Might I remind you a single act of brutality, especially one steeped in black magic as these incidences are, is one violation too many. Our job is to protect this world, and more so this kingdom, from any dark sorcery that may threaten it. If this directive is in any way unclear, I will be more than happy to personally instruct you in the importance of upholding your defensive role.”
A chill crept up Eric’s spine.
“Oh, come on. Instruct him,” Sestian said, a grin stretched across his face.
A palpable silence fell over the room. Master Camden shifted in his seat and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. “Personal instruction is not necessary, Supreme Master.”
“I find that to be a wise decision.”
Eric exhaled. “Yes, so do I.”
Jared stood and pulled the hood of his cloak forward. “Since we are in agreement, I believe we can dismiss. Sir Trogsdill, if I may, I’d like to speak with my daughter alone.”
“Of course,” Trog said, standing. “The rest of you, follow me to the dining hall where you can feast before your journey home.”
“I don’t believe this, Sestian whispered as Trog ushered the last of the visitors out and closed the door behind him.
“Shh,” Eric said.
Down below, Slavandria, said “What is on your mind, Father?”
Jared strolled past her, his hands tucked into his voluminous sleeves. “I have given this a great deal of thought and I have reached a decision. Considering all that has happened, I am left with no other choice. As queen of the Southern Forest and protector of this realm, you must summon the paladin.”
Her gasp could have ripped leaves from their stems.
“Father, no! I can’t! The paladin is only to be summoned in the direst of circumstances. While these attacks are horrid, they are far from extreme.”
“Father, please. The ramifications will be devastating to all those involved. Together with the shime, we’ll find this enemy and bring him into the light. I beg you. Please do not do this.”
“If that were true, they would have done so by now. As such, your arguing is futile. My decision is made. By sunset within three days, you must fulfill your duties. I will have the document drawn and sealed. Have Mangus deliver it. So it is said?”
Slavandria’s jaw tightened. “You’re being unreasonable.”
“And you are bordering the line of punishment.”
Eric shuddered at the menacing tone.
“Do I have your word?” Jared said.
Slavandria straightened her back and steadied her voice. “Yes, Father. So it is said. So it shall be done, but don’t think for one-minute I won’t improvise when the time presents itself.”
“You have always been my challenge child. I would expect nothing less from you. Now, if you will forgive me, I must go.”
“Where this time?”
“Home, to Felindil for a day. Afterwards, I will be in seclusion, communing with the heavens before taking to the sea.”
“What? And leave me here to set the world right once the paladin arrives?”
Jared’s full-bodied laughter filled the room. “You sound as if the demon of the underworld will rise, spewing fire and ash.”
“And how do you know he won’t?” She paused, her fingers steepled to her lips before continuing. “Father, please. All I ask is for once, in your long, stubborn life, you listen to me. The people of this kingdom and all of Fallhollow are innocent. They need our protection. I fear what the paladin’s presence will do. You can’t bring such devastation upon Fallhollow and then leave me to salvage whatever is left.”
“I bring nothing upon this realm; therefore, I leave you with nothing to clean up. The course of the world is set. Events will unfold as they will. The paladin will not change that which is set in motion.”
“You’re wrong, Father.” Slavandria brushed past him.
“Disagree if you must. You always do. For now, go home. Wait for my summoning papers and prepare the traveler. I will come to you in Chalisdawn three days hence.”
Jared snapped his fingers. White shards of light crackled and zapped around him, and he was gone.
Slavandria shook her head. “You have no idea what you’ve done, Father.” She gathered her cloak from the back of a chair and incanted some strange words. A swift pale-blue mist rose from the floor, swirling, engulfing her in a vortex. The air sizzled and splintered, and she, too, disappeared.
“Whoa,” Sestian said. “This is worse than bad.”
“No kidding,” Eric stood and brushed the dust from his breeches, “and I have a feeling it’s going to get a lot worse.”
Sestian withdrew the torch as they left the room and shut the door. “You do realize we’re going to have to find out who this paladin is, right?”
Eric walked down the steps. “Why is that?”
“Come on. Are you that daft? How else are we going to prove to Trog and Farnsworth that we’re deserving of becoming knights? Right now they think we’re nothing but a pair of imbeciles worthy of nothing more than polishing armor and performing duties of a valet.”
“We’re squires, Ses. That’s what we do.”
“And it’s all we’ll ever do if we don’t prove ourselves. Don’t you get it? When was the last time Gyllen Castle or Hirth saw battle, hmm?”
“You sound as if you want war.”
“No, but I haven’t trained all my life to become a knight only to end up as a fat, lazy, well-paid manservant.”
Eric turned a corner and continued downward, his voice hollow in the muted dark. “I don’t think you’ll ever be fat or lazy.”
“Eric, come on. Why must you be so difficult? Without a skirmish or two, acts of heroism for us are limited to rescuing girls from over-zealous drunkards and protecting the royal dinner from the palace dogs. I want more than that. When I die, I don’t want to be remembered for how well I polished a sword, but for something grand and heroic. Don’t you want the same?”
“Of course I do, but I don’t sit around thinking about what legacy I want to leave behind when I die.”
“Liar. All you ever talk about is how much you want to be a knight like Trog.” Sestian shoved past Eric and blocked his descent. “Think about it. You know as well as I we’ll be relegated to the stables to saddle horses and pack rations and bedrolls if there is the slightest hint of a conflict. They won’t let us anywhere near a battlefield, especially you. It’s like you’re some kind of poster boy for squire school.”
“I know, but—”
“No, there are no buts. Don’t you see? Now is our chance to show our mettle. If we team up with this paladin, we have a chance to prove ourselves. Trog and Farnsworth will have to take notice.”
“Yeah, after they flog, tar and feather us. Besides, what makes you think this paladin will want us, huh? He’s probably some powerful sorcerer like Jared.”
“No one is as powerful as Jared, but I’ll bet you a rooster against a duck this savior dabbles not only in white, but black magic, too. That’s why Jared needs him.”
“Which is all the more reason for us to keep our distance.”
“No! It’s all the more reason for us to find him. He’ll need guides to help him maneuver through our lands. We’ll be heroes for saving Fallhollow from a murderous foe. King Gildore will praise us. Songs will be written about us.”
Eric rolled his eyes.
Sestian snorted. “Don’t think I can’t hear your eyes flipping around in their sockets. You know I’m right. We know every crack in the earth Fallhollow possesses. We’ve been trained by the very best knights in the world. On top of that, I have a knack for getting us in and out of places unseen. You’re extraordinary with a blade. Together, we’re dangerous. We can be his eyes and ears. And when we defeat whatever is out there, Trog and Farnsworth will have no choice but to admit our accomplishments and recommend us for knighthood.”
Sestian’s stance and the set of his eyes conveyed an intensity Eric admired and feared. He sighed aloud. “All right. You win, but we say nothing. If Trog and Farnsworth found out, they’d roll us in dragon dung and set us on fire.”
Sestian punched Eric playfully on the arm and smiled, wide. “Ha! I knew I could break you.”
They hurried from the music room and fell in with other students leaving classrooms. In the sunlit courtyard, Eric stopped short. Sestian plowed into him from behind.
Eric gritted his teeth. “Do you not see who is standing in front of us?”
Sestian turned his gaze to their masters leaning against the balustrade, their arms folded to their chests, waiting. “Great. Let me handle this.”
Trog stood upright and adjusted the sword on his hip, flexing the intersecting scars on his arms—reminders of dozens of battles fought. He took a step forward, and a gust of wind blew his dark hair back from his weathered, sun-darkened face, exposing a high forehead, square jaw, and intense peridot eyes. Eric gulped as a childhood tale about a sly mouse captured by a blind owl scampered through his brain.
“You’re late,” Trog said, tossing Eric a suede satchel weighed down with sheathed knives. “Where have you been?” He spoke softly, but his voice reverberated through the crisp morning air.
“Listening to Magister Timan’s lecture on ceremonial magic,” Sestian replied. “Did you know there are magical portals that allow us to travel between realms?”
“Did you know I have a magical foot that can disappear up your backside if you don’t get down to the stables right now?” Farnsworth asked. His brow furrowed beneath a curtain of wavy straw-colored hair. He walked toward Sestian, the seams of his green tunic strained over his wide shoulders, his eyes as brown and penetrating as a wolf’s.
“So I’ve heard. Several times.” Sestian grinned and tapped Eric on the arm. “We’ll get together later and go over what we learned today, eh?”
Eric nodded and shuffled his feet under the weight of Trog’s stare. He waited for Sestian and Farnsworth to get far enough away before lifting his head and meeting Trog’s gaze. The knight lifted a brow.
“Are you going to tell me where you really were, or are you going to hold to your story that you were listening to a lecture that ended this time yesterday?”
“Which one will get me in the least amount of trouble?”
Trog placed his hand on Eric’s back and edged him down the stone steps to the lower courtyard. “The truth, Eric. Always the truth.”
“What if I promised not to tell?”
“Secrets are grave burdens to bear.”
“I can’t betray his confidence, sir. I promised.”
Trog nodded. “Then you’ll sleep in the stables tonight as punishment.”
“What? How is that fair?”
“You know the rules as my squire, and you still choose to withhold the truth. Therefore, you shall be punished accordingly.”
“But the rules of knighthood require I not reveal confidences or secrets under any circumstance to anyone at any time, even under pain of death.”
“Nice try, lad, but the last time I looked, you have not been captured nor are you under pain of death.” Trog placed a heavy hand on Eric’s shoulder. “I’m going to give you one more chance. What will it be?”
Eric clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides. “With all due respect, sir, I cannot and will not betray my friend.”
Trog removed his hand. “I commend you on your loyalty, son, but you have made your choice. Therefore, you will suffer the consequences of it. Now go on and get busy with your chores. I want each of those blades in your hand sharpened and polished by morning—”
“And for protesting when you should not, you will also sharpen and polish Sir Farnsworth’s blades. I’ll see to it they are dropped off.” Eric opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind when Trog dipped his brow in warning. “Would you like me to add Sir Gowran’s and Sir Crohn’s weapons to your load?”
Eric bit back the irritation boiling below the surface. “No, sir.”
“Very well. Bring the blades to the farrier’s stall in the morning around eight. It will be a dual-fold meeting as you can visit your father at the same time.”
Trog paused for a moment, his expression thoughtful, then turned and strolled across the courtyard. He hoisted a young page from a game of marbles and lectured him on the pitfalls of wasting time. Eric snorted at the boy’s bewildered expression and the speed at which he ran once set down upon his feet. Been there, boy. He cursed beneath his breath. What am I talking about? I’m still there.
Eric’s boots clicked on the cobblestones as he plodded toward Crafter’s Row. He passed beneath the archway connecting the cathedral to the knights’ quarters and turned left down the tree-shaded lane toward the royal stables. After informing the stablemaster of his upcoming sleeping arrangements, Eric returned the way he came. At the crossroad, he turned and made his way toward the smithy. Horses clomped and wagons rattled over the pavers while thick clouds gathered overhead, suffocating the sun. A light drizzle set in as he entered a stone building marked by a metal plate engraved with a hammer and anvil. The blacksmith wiped the sweat from his brow and motioned Eric to a table set with vials of oils, and various whetstones.
Eric sighed. Lovely.
He settled into the monotonous task of sharpening and polishing, taking on Farnsworth’s load a few hours later. He finished his arduous task just after dusk. Cursing his sore muscles, he packed up the satchels and shuffled to the stables where a plate of bread, cheese and a pint of goat’s milk waited for him.
Great. Is he trying to starve me, too?
He ate what was given and settled into the hayloft, his stomach a knot of protests. He sighed. Who was this paladin, and from who or what was he destined to save the realm? There was only one way to find out. Tomorrow he and Sestian would devise a plan, and it would be worthy of a knight’s tale. When all was said and done, Trog would have no other choice than to see him as a worthy knight instead of an incompetent fool. An image of Trog groveling for forgiveness appeared in his mind. Eric snuggled into a bed of hay and fell into a blissful dream, a wide grin on his face.