Aure the Topaz: Book 1 of the Aglaril Cycle

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Evan Returns Home

It was a cold, clear Thursday when Evan reined in his horse. He leaned forward and patted him on the neck. Alsvinn neighed and tossed his head about.

“Easy, Alsvinn.” Evan pulled on the reins to keep control of his horse. “I know you’d like to charge ahead, but this is my old hometown. We need to be a little calmer than normal. These are gentle people.”

The steed seemed to understand his rider and grew quiet.

Evan peered down the dirt road to the village of Clearbrook. He had left Wrightwood eight days earlier and had been riding at a moderate but steady pace ever since. Now, near his destination, the autumn air smelled crisp and sweet. Evan breathed deeply, enjoying the aroma.

He exhaled and a small cloud formed in front of his mouth. In the distance, bare trees, with limbs like gnarled hands, looked as if they were trying to catch light and warmth. Dead brown leaves tumbled across Evan’s path in the slight breeze and crunched under Alsvinn’s hooves.

As Evan trotted along, he saw no one on the road that led into town. It was only after he passed the homes and stores that stood along the edge of town that he began to see people. They appeared to be going about their business: splitting firewood, shoeing horses, raking leaves, or walking down the street with their cloaks pulled tightly around them. Each person Evan saw greeted him warmly with a “Good morning, Father,” or a smile and a nod of the head.

Evan smiled and waved back, or returned their greetings, “And good morning to you.”

Further ahead, Evan began to hear the din of the open market and, as he came closer, saw it alive with activity. People dressed in long coats or short coats, and carrying bags, sacks, or purses perused clothes, leather, carpets, and food in endless varieties. Moving from one stall to another was slow, often requiring others to move first; but everyone made do. The merchants in each stall welcomed each new face, hawked their wares, and recited specials of the day. When someone made an offer or showed even the slightest bit of interest in buying, the stall owner haggled over the price or cajoled the customer into buying.

Evan began to turn away when he caught the sight of a middle-aged woman with auburn curly hair and a blue scarf wrapped around her head. She had full cheeks, which the cold air had turned red and which made her face resemble a plump tomato.

She looks like that lady I exorcised in Wrightwood, Christine Robeson … how many years has it been? He flushed a little when he realized that nine years had passed. But that couldn’t be she, could it? Evan watched her as she looked over the tuna, salmon, cod, and haddock that hung on hooks suspended from a wooden bar over the fishmonger’s stall.

The woman looked up and caught Evan’s gaze. She inclined her head politely, but showed no sign of recognition. Evan averted his eyes. Guess I was mistaken.

Spurring Alsvinn forward, Evan pushed on into the town square. The town’s clock tower, at the north end of the quadrangle, chimed the half hour. In the middle of the square, there was a small low fountain with a two-foot tall brick wall around it. Over the fountain stood a bronze statue of King Illium, Thalacia’s first king. The monarch held his fabled sword, Sadarxio, in one hand, and had his arm outstretched, with the blade pointed up to the heavens. His stance was regal, proclaiming his power and majesty as he gazed upon the legendary blade.

Evan cantered out of the west side of the square and down the road. At the end of the lane was an inn with a sign depicting a gray stallion standing on its hind legs. The Michaeline priest saw the building and smiled. He had reached his destination, the Grey Horse Inn.

Alsvinn responded to Evan’s tug on the reins and stopped in front of the Inn. Evan dismounted and looked up at the Grey Horse. He marveled that it appeared the same as when he’d left town, fifteen years earlier. Three wooden stairs led up to a set of wooden double doors. The doors were worn, but stood firm against the cold autumnal air. Across the front of the building, whitewashed shingles had warped and were stained with black mildew along their edges.

Evan tied the reins of his steed to a nearby hitching post and brushed off miles of dust from his clothes. The demon hunter climbed the stairs, feeling fifteen again. He reached for the handles to both doors, recalling old memories. He had come here often to spend time with his best friend, Frank Jones.

Those had been carefree days. At least they had been until Evan began committing pranks all over town. The Michaeline priest scratched his head.

Why was I so angry and arrogant? I could have hurt someone. As the pained face of Father O’Malley flashed across his mind, he realized he had.

Evan had been placed in Father O’Malley’s care after both of Evan’s parents had died and, at the time, he had not understood why. Perhaps that’s why I was so angry. Evan was not completely sure. Father O’Malley had not treated Evan poorly or given Evan any reason to be angry; but despite this fact, Evan perpetrated a variety of pranks in the six weeks immediately following the deaths of his parents. Finally, Father O’Malley decided it was time to discipline Evan severely and sent him away to St. Bertram’s School for Wayward Boys.

Evan sighed and pushed open the doors to the lobby. Wonder filled him; the Inn’s interior had been completely altered, even as the exterior remained untouched by time. Originally, there had only been a pine counter, a flight of stairs leading to guest rooms across from the counter, an old storeroom to the left of the entrance, and a small kitchen in back. Now, Evan saw that the storeroom had been finished off and converted into a large unfurnished hall. The pine counter had been replaced with mahogany. Across from him, on the far wall of the Inn’s foyer, were twin doors leading into a common room. Clearly, the owner of the Grey Horse had been busy renovating.

Frank stood behind the counter wearing a clean apron as Evan entered. “By the saints,” he said, his eyes widening. “I don’t believe it. Evan. Evan Pierce.” He smiled. “I was just thinking of you last week.”

Evan looked at his old friend and grinned back.

Frank came out from behind the counter and shook Evan’s hand. “What brings you to Clearbrook?” He slapped Evan’s shoulder.

“Rest. My brother demon hunters and I just finished cleaning out some necromancers from the ruins of Mirea, and His Grace gave me a few days to rest. So here I am. Got a room?”

“You want to stay here?”

“Why not? You run a good inn and I need a place to stay.”

Frank shrugged. “I figured, as a Michaeline priest, you’d want to stay in a fancier place.”

Evan’s eyes were round with surprise as he studied his friend’s face. “Frank, it’s me. Evan. I may be a priest of St. Michael, but I’m still the same person you used to go fishing with.”

“Are you?”

“Of course, why would you think otherwise?”

“Look at you. The priest’s collar, the red cross on your shirt, the sword at your side. You look like one of the Michaeline masters of St. Bartholomew.”

“Well, I’m not, and you have nothing to fear. So relax.”

“If you say so. Here, let me see which rooms are open.”

Frank went to look through his records while Evan went outside to stable Alsvinn. As he returned to the lobby, Evan thought about Frank’s reaction.

I expected Frank to think of me more as an old friend and less as a Michaeline priest, not the other way around. I wonder if the reputation of St. Bartholomew, our stronghold outside of Stellingham, is affecting Frank. Heaven knows there are plenty of stories circulating about priests from St. Bartholomew branding folks as evil or as heretics, burning their crops, seizing their businesses, and imprisoning and torturing the accused. Most of these stories are unfounded, yet somehow the Order’s true purpose — to stop evil and protect folks from the undead — has been twisted by people who did not understand. Is Frank one of those people?

Evan did not think so, but he decided the subject was better left alone.

Frank offered Evan a choice of several rooms upstairs. After picking one, Evan went to unpack and change his clothes. He pushed the door to his room open and scanned the area for signs of evil. A large four-poster bed filled the center of the room. Pale green, cotton drapes covered the windows and a chest for storing quilts and blankets sat at the foot of the bed. A night table with a lamp on it had been placed to the right of the bed, and to the left was a wide table next to a narrow fireplace.

No signs of evil here.

Evan dropped his saddlebags just inside the door and flopped on the bed. It was soft. He thought about sleeping, but, aside from a few aches that were the result of riding for the last several hours, Evan was not overly tired. His stomach growled; he was hungry, but he needed to unpack and change his clothes first.

Rolling off the bed, Evan examined his wardrobe and wished he had packed some non-priestly clothes so he could more easily blend in.

Guess I’ll have to go shopping, Evan thought, feeling torn. He had not dressed as a layperson since he had become a priest and demon hunter. It seemed that to do so now would be like a sheepdog wearing a ram’s pelt and pretending to be part of the flock. Yet these were his people; he had grown up here. He did not want to make them anxious by wearing the traditional garb of his order.

Better to pose as one of them, he thought. And who knows? Maybe wearing something less formal will help Frank forget that I’m a Michaeline priest. He sighed and formed a plan of action. I’ll eat first and then shop for some clothes.

Evan finished his unpacking and went downstairs into the common room. Only a few tables were occupied. As he sat down at an empty table, Frank approached.

“Frank, are you waiting tables?” asked Evan.

“For the next few days, yes.”

“Why? Where’s your serving girl?”

“In the great hall, along with my dishwasher, bard, and two old wizards I hired to entertain my guests. They are guarding Tindolen’s gem,” the innkeeper said with resignation.

Evan shook his head to clear it. Something did not make sense. Tindolen was Clearbrook’s elven jeweler and had been for over two hundred years. But why was Frank’s staff guarding one of the elf’s gems?

“They’re …” Evan stopped in disbelief. “But they aren’t guardsmen. Why are they standing watch? Can’t Tindolen afford his own men?”

“It’s a long story,” Frank explained. “Tindolen offered to display the gem here to celebrate St. Sebastian’s week.”

“St. Sebastian’s week?” said Evan. “But no one’s done that since the dukef invasion. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard St. Sebastian’s name since leaving the seminary. Most folks have forgotten about him and his message of tolerance and cooperation among all races.”

Frank nodded his head. “I know, but you can’t tell that to Bigsbee.”

Evan’s eyes widened and he raised his eyebrows. “Bigsbee! Is he still in office? How long has it been? Twenty years?”

“About that.”

“No wonder none of this makes sense. He’s never had a good idea and almost always confuses the details of any situation.”

“Except this time,” said the innkeeper. “Mayor Bigsbee decided it was time to celebrate St. Sebastian’s week. He just goes on and on about how it is time to heal the differences that have kept humans and elves apart.”

That, at least, Evan conceded to himself, was a noble goal. But until the dukefs are willing to give back the land they have taken, return the property and monies they have stolen, and compensate the families of the people they killed during the invasion of the old capital, Andropolis, it is unlikely there can be a lasting peace or racial tolerance.

“And so,” Frank continued, “as a way to observe the occasion, His Honor asked for people to set up displays that showcase the cooperation that once existed between the two races.”

“And Tindolen’s gem is his display?” Evan surmised.

“Right,” said Frank.

“But how does a gem highlight the cooperation between the races?”

“It’s an Elf-gem.”

The color in Evan’s face drained away. “But that’s impossible. All seven Elf-gems were lost when the Crown of Power they had been set into was destroyed.”

“I know, but Tindolen insists it is real.”

Evan stood. The gem, if authentic, could easily be the prize referred to in the letter he had shown His Grace a week ago. Which meant that Jormundan planned to steal it; but, even more important, if the gem was real, it was valuable to the entire kingdom.

“Lose your appetite?” asked Frank.

“No, but I want to see that jewel first. If it’s genuine, Bigsbee needs to assign guards to protect it and I need to talk to Tindolen. This could be our chance to eliminate the dukefs once and for all.”

Frank understood his friend’s point and said nothing. He just watched Evan dash out of the common room and across the foyer.

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