The Pale Wood

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Forgotten Knight, Hidden Princes

Forgotten Knight,

Hidden Princes

1

“There are nights when I lay in the field and stare at the stars. I find it best in the spring, when the moon is new and above me spins a cloudless sky punctured by a multitude of stars.

“Once I was a knight…” Kendrick’s voice trailed away. He was out of words, there were none left to say.

And no one listening anyway.

A rare melancholy gripped him. Anger, indignation, outrage, cold-blooded calculation as he buried his sword in another man’s belly; these were no strangers to this man called Kendrick who once bore the honorific Sir. But melancholy, melancholy was as rare in him as a blue moon in the sky. And, he was quite drunk. This also was rare for Kendrick.

The night was cold, air puffed from his lips and formed clouds that hung in the air and like ghosts whipped away to nothing. Low slung clouds hid the stars from sight and the moon was an indistinct blur barely seen.

“Once I was a knight…” He said again. A part of him wanted to scream, but I threw it all away! Of course he hadn’t. Quit yes, but his quitting was a statement, knightly in and of itself. Quitting too was an attempt at restraint. He’d wanted to slaughter the room. Start with Goulding and end with his prince.

The knights were no longer what they once were, but perhaps he thought the knights were always this way, perhaps the stories were only that, stories. Perhaps the ideals the knights professed they followed were nothing more than hypocrisy and had ever been hypocrisy. And Kendrick knew hypocrisy every time he looked in a glass, or a still pool of water. He was no better than the knights he cursed.

Was his need to keep the sword part of it’s curse?

After his denial of the knights he’d returned home and waited. He waited for them to come, be they one or many, he knew they would come.

But, they never did.

At first, it kept him going, kept him focused, kept him alert, this absolute certainty that they would come to hang him. Still, none came.

Doubt assailed him. He’d quit in a fury. Fed up with insults, fed up with being a falcon perched upon his prince’s wrist, under his thumb and therefore under the thumb of knights like Sir Longworth, of the priests, and the damned sorcerers. Shunned by his peers after the Wood, their disdain deepened with his success in the Drowned Castle. Twice they tried to sacrifice him; first to the Black Knight, then to the warlock. He wanted the reason he quit to be Sir Harris. The knight who forsook every vow, every tenet of the knights for a chest of gold, but Kendrick’s reasons ran deeper than one corrupt knight. And the order Kendrick abandoned honored Sir Harris, pretended he sacrificed himself for the greater good. They honored Sir Harris and denigrated him.

But that was not it. Sir Harris was a symptom not a cause. The last insult was… the last insult he could bear. They took from him that which allowed him to endure. The Wood Beyond the Wall and his return; they stripped him of the quest and gave it to that buffoon Sir Longworth. The fucking dolt. The damned by every Forgotten God coward of a knight, Sir Longworth.

Thinking of it drove him to despair, because after all, if he was being honest; and he demanded honesty from himself- at least some of the time; then he was no better than the rest. His own hypocrisy made all the worse by self-righteous indignation.

And what was he to do?

Each day he trained.

Kendrick was good at warfare, nothing else. Kendrick was man dedicated to the murder of men. It was his chosen vocation.

He drank deep from the jug. He felt the burn as it went down. He could feel the bounce of harsh liquor from throat to belly; up and down. He choked back the rising bile.

He would not, could not contemplate a career as a mercenary. He had no desire to sell his sword and the arm that held it to whosoever might pay the most coin.

He was no farmer he knew that. Unlike Jericho, he held no desire to play at it either. Animal husbandry held no interest to him. There were dogs of all sorts on his land, herding dogs, small terriers that hated rats and roamed the barns and silos in search of such, and hunting dogs. Aemon seemed almost inseparable from the hunting dogs.

Cats slept before the hearth in his home and kept the rats and mice outside. There were goats and cows for milk and meat. Sheep in a pen for their wool. Oxen and mules to push, pull, and haul. Chickens for eggs and meat.

The land, his land, and the folk he protected provided all that was needed to live a comfortable life. And over the past months since his self-imposed exile he’d tried… well everything and hated it all and been more hindrance than help anyway. These folks, these people, his people, looked on him with pity. A prince refused to meet his gaze, but his plowman offered him a sad smile as if to say “a man without work isn’t a man,”

Kendrick had work. Dark work. Dark and bloody. His was the task of the cursed. Or perhaps the blessed. He hardly understood the difference.

He tried to flex the fingers on his dead hand. He felt them curl up, bunch into a fist. He felt it! But it was a lie, his eyes told him so. He watched the hand that was once his and the fingers did nothing.

He held it up. He looked at the skin. In his mind, he saw the coloring. The skin was his own, but the coloring was off, altered by the tanning process. The glyphs branded to the leather were lost in the darkness. Under the skin, beneath the leather were his bones, stripped of meat and sinew, reinforced by the Bone Wood so coveted that the merest scraps were worth their weight in gold. Mikal packed dust and shavings into the arm, Bone Wood dust and shavings.

Mikal enchanted the arm too, but it worked so rarely, that Kendrick suspected he’d only imagined it.

He turned to the house and the out buildings, the cluster of small houses that surrounded the square. It was almost a village. His village, filled with his people. All at risk due to his arrogance. Or not at risk, and that was a blow to his ego.

They celebrated the harvest, toasted the summer past and spat at the coming winter. They danced and drank and ate and played the pipes and the fiddle and the mandolin. They laughed. They mourned the end of the leaves on the trees and lived to spite the winter. How many summer babes would arrive next year? Three had come this year and spring had seen a pair of weddings. One bride’s belly was swollen.

In a few months, after the thaw, a quest would commence. It was a quest he yearned to join, but could not. A quest he’d failed to complete almost seven years past. Seven years of reprieve. He needed to reenter the Bone Wood.

He touched the hilt of his sword. It was made of the mystical Bone Wood, wood of trees born of the corpse of a god whose name was forgotten. An awful god it must be.

And suddenly, Kendrick was sober. He drew the sword and stared at it in the gloom. He traced the markings on the blade with his dead fingers and could feel them. Cursed twice, blessed once was that sword, and all for him.

Kendrick knew what he must do.

He would go to the city and see Prince Jasper one way or another, he would see the prince. He would see the prince and force him to acquiesce to his singular demand, to enter the Wood. He would lead his own quest through the gates and into the Wood.

Where the other took six, he needed only five. Kendrick smiled. There were things he knew that Sir Longworth could not guess. These secrets from almost seven years past that haunted still today.

2

Entering the city was far easier than he expected. Kendrick rode along with one of his wagons filled with pelts and grain headed for the market in Byzantis. As always, guardsmen watched each person and wagon or cart enter the city, but the vigilance on display was little more than illusion. It struck Kendrick that many of his previous assumptions were the very essence of naiveté.

The guards never realized he was armed. Before reaching the market, Kendrick left the wagon.

That morning, looking in Alia’s glass, he’d seen himself for the first time in a long while. He’d avoided his face as he avoided facing his own hypocrisy. Once, there was a time when each day he honed a blade and scraped the hair from lip and chin, cheek and neck. No more. Once, his hair was trim and short. No more. His hair was shaggy, unkempt, his face buried beneath a beard once a golden brown, now shot through with streaks of gray and curiously, ginger.

He wore rough spun clothes and a cloak over his trusted leather armor and gloves to conceal the disparity between his sword hand and the dead one.

Kendrick slipped into the streams of people moving through the streets and made his way down narrow alleys and shadowed streets. It was a part of the city that once befuddled the former knight, but no longer. He now felt at home in the labyrinthine warrens. It was not his place, but no longer was he a stranger, unwelcome and always a wrong turn from losing his way.

These were the streets the beggars returned to when the shops closed their doors, when the stalls in the bazaar collapsed, and those with coin to spare were done spending it, these streets were where they went when their coin was spent on the cheap wine that got them through the dark night.

These same streets were the paths of the prostitutes no longer fresh and pretty enough for the silver coin that powered the city. Along these streets were doors down into the half buried hideouts of the young cutpurses and the hard men who claimed the lion’s share of any theft. In this dark district were the thieves and liars, rapists and murderers, and Mikal, of course Mikal set up shop in the underbelly of Byzantis. Kendrick thought it a flaw in Mikal’s make-up that made him so.

Mikal’s house was in a strange neutral area where it was not quite in the slums, but neither was it in a safe haven of the city. The geography of the house was much like the man himself, on the border between law and chaos, on the verge, near to tipping, but always, always balanced on the razors edge.

Once, Kendrick knew of only one way to Mikal. Now he knew a dozen. It was amongst the downtrodden, in the slums, where some knight was most at liberty to strike, but then, a knight must recognize Kendrick. No one would raise a finger in defense of another, particularly a stranger. None there truly knew Kendrick, but they had a sense, a feeling, an intuition that sent a clear signal that he was not now, not ever to be trifled with. Or as Kendrick put it some time back to a pimp who thought he was equal to Kendrick; this he said while the pimp clutched his bloody nose and refused to look at the point of a sword threatening castrate him. Kendrick said: “I am not to be fucked with. Ever.” The pimp wept at the mercy Kendrick showed.

Such a man was likely to nurture hatred and try to kill Kendrick. Kendrick didn’t care.

Should a knight chance to see Kendrick en route to Mikal there would be blood.

Nothing was announced, nothing was official, but a general sense amongst the knights was that Kendrick, perhaps the lowest of them all, had besmirched their honor. To retake that honor meant his head. Kendrick understood his peril and so learned a myriad of paths to Mikal, not all were limited to the polished cobbles that served as the surface of the streets.

Already, one knight fell to his sword. He never knew the knight, had never seen him before he drew his sword and attacked. His name remained a mystery, one Kendrick had no interest in solving. Kendrick was certain it was the off color of his dead hand that gave him away, hence the gloves.

In the city he wore his dead hand thinking a one handed former knight was quite conspicuous. After killing the mystery knight he concluded that the differing color of the dead hand too, was too conspicuous.

The day was warm, warmer than it ought to be.

No one paid him any mind as he made his way. He saw a pair of knights watching Mikal’s front door, so Kendrick walked around to the north western side of the house until he found the open channel of the sewer. He jumped down and without letting his eyes adjust walked into the narrow dark tunnel, around two corners and to a thick wooden door without ring or lock. Practiced hands groped along the stone, found a seam and pressed. A click echoed, faint and lonely, and the door opened a crack.

Kendrick pushed his way through and climbed up into Mikal’s house.

3

“There are priests who take vows of poverty and still manage to look better than you. You look like you crawled through mud and bathed in a sewer.” Mikal stated in that matter of fact way he so often adopted. The look of Mikal when he scolded bordered on comic.

Kendrick ignored the Mikal’s protests, easy enough to do when the corners of Mikal’s mouth twitched up.

“I need to get in the castle.” Kendrick said without further preamble. It was a flaw in his character. A selfishness that teetered on narcissism bubbled forth as he obsessed and acted compulsively. This behavior was unobserved by the former knight, that he lacked decorum, politeness, and common courtesy most of the time simply did not matter to him.

Mikal, seeing that Kendrick refused to rise to the bait sighed and ignored the discourtesy on display. “Why? Such a foray is certain to endanger your health.”

“I have business with the prince.”

“Prince Jasper. Too many strings on that one. He cannot dance to your tune anymore.”

Kendrick shook his head, sipped his wine, scowled at it and set it aside. Seeing the reaction, Mikal said. “An excellent vintage, robust and fine, the hint of almonds as an aftertaste.”

“Tastes of dung.”

“Well, I may have given you something else.” Mikal smiled behind his cup as he took a long swallow of his wine. Kendrick glared and clenched his fists; both fists. This pleased Mikal. “Go on, the prince, the prince, you must see your prince.”

“He played me, not the other way.”

“”Yes, this is why you quit.”

Kendrick spat, reached out and plucked Mikal’s goblet from scholar’s hands. He drank deep to wash the taste of the other from his mouth. He wiped his lips.

“It is good.”

Mikal laughed.

“I’m going back into the Wood.”

“Are you?” Mikal asked in mock surprise.

“I am. Your coming too.”

“Am I?” Mikal smiled at this. It was why he travelled to Byzantis after all.

The mysteries were within the Wall. In the soil the Bone Wood trees snaked beneath with deathly pale roots. In the cool mist that lay draped over the Wood. In that venerable charnel house, Castle Thrace.

“Yes. I need Prince Jasper to put his seal on a letter to get us through the gate.”

Mikal leaned over and picked up his goblet, found it empty, looked at Kendrick and muttered “heathen,”. Mikal chose a new cup and filled both.

Kendrick took goblet and drank from it.

“Why should Jasper do this, why not simply steal his ring and apply the seal yourself?”

“No.”

“Honor is it? Morality and all that? Is it still loyalty?”

Kendrick looked in his cup, silent. Mikal stabbed a finger at Kendrick. “You are no knight. Not any longer. And as you say, you danced to his fiddle. You owe him nothing. That fool Longworth weakened this city when he mucked up that Crow Cult business. That cock up is why the siege occurred. You saved them then too. The prince’s bastard owes his very life to you. Your prince has been complicit in every attempt to murder you. Still, you kneel.”

“Knights do far worse than you suggest Mikal. That is why I am not a knight.”

Mikal shrugged. “So, am I to assume that you intend to follow tradition?”

“Yes.”

“So then, I am your sorcerer?”

“Something like that.”

“I am not a sorcerer.”

“You’ll do. I’ve no trust for any of those.“

“And you are no knight.”

“I was.”

“But what are you now.”

“Better.”

Mikal slammed his hand on the table, real anger flashing in his eyes. “Better how? Kendrick you are just a man, a man with no skills beyond the sword at your waist. So what are you, who are you to lead a quest into Castle Thrace?”

Kendrick said nothing. He ground teeth on teeth and glared at Mikal. He knew the words Mikal wanted from him. He knew the word in truth. Must he say it? Must he commit again to a title? Mikal seemed to think so, but his last title was as it turned out, unworthy of him.

Mikal wanted him to adopt a new title, a title he was unworthy of. Wasn’t his intent enough?

“No!” Mikal barked as if reading Kendrick’s mind.

Kendrick said nothing.

“You wish for me to join you? Say it. Say what you are. Do it now or never. This is the moment.”

And Kendrick knew the truth of it. He would never be worthy, never. Not so long as he was unwilling to adopt it, until he did, he would never, could never be worthy. When the moment arrived, he would be, or not.

Kendrick chose. Kendrick spoke the word. It was a quiet statement, but strong, confidant and filled with power, power Mikal longed to see from Kendrick. Mikal, leaned forward, was driven back by the force of the word.

“Paladin.”

4

Tradition demanded seven enter Castle Thrace. But in truth it was more than tradition, more than an arbitrary edict passed down through time. Seven was the number of gods, forgotten though they were, seven once claimed dominion over all the land, sea, and sky. Three for this world, seven for the next. Four in between was the sky.

Always, six entered the Wood. But Kendrick intended to lead five in. He knew that more than the Poor Knight resided within the walls surrounding the Wood.

“We need no thief.” He told Mikal. Mikal proclaimed him a fool, then Kendrick revealed the secret he’d kept for nearly seven years. The thief Devlin lived, he remained in the Wood with the Poor Knight.

“He may be dead.”

Kendrick thought a moment.

“No, Devlin lives.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.” Kendrick said with a surety that convinced Mikal.

Mikal agreed to find a priest leaving them in need of two fighting men. Kendrick thought of Aemon and Jericho, but that would leave his lands unprotected and he had no wish to drag them into the hell on the other side of the wall.

“I will find fighting men. But first, the prince.”

Mikal nodded. “The castle is impregnable,” he dithered, “from most perspectives. To breach it we must alter our perception. Doing so brings weakness into clarity and doors open.”

Mikal spread a map across his scarred and pitted table. It was a map of the city unlike any Kendrick had ever seen before.

Thick vellum curled at the edges. Lines layered upon lines scrawled across the surface. It was the city. In red, blue, and black ink. Each color was in itself a different representation of the city.

“These are the sewers in part, really it is the underground of Byzantis.” Mikal traced a slim finger over the black lines. “You see?”

Kendrick nodded.

“The red is the streets. Blue is everything above.”

Kendrick saw a great deal more black lines and blue lines than he ever imagined.

“Underground.” He said and shivered at the thought, thinking back to the night he spent in the Drowned Castle.

Mikal nodded.

Kendrick looked at the confusion of lines and sighed.

Mikal saw this and his mouth twitched.

“Three, four, seven. We see it mimicked on the map.”

Kendrick nodded his understanding. “I see that it works, but not how.”

Mikal grunted. “I see,”

He muttered a clipped phrase in a tongue that rasped in Kendrick’s ears and the red and blue lines faded away.

And Kendrick truly grasped the map then.

They ate a meal of stew filled with peppers of every color, onions, garlic, venison, and corpse maggots tossed into the boiling mix alive and at the very end. A few hearty worms twitched as Kendrick chewed.

Mikal conducted some business that had nothing whatever to do with Kendrick, so Kendrick read from his only book. Bound in skin, it was the small volume recounting the lives of Paladins long dead.

The tales recounted in the pages were both heroic and tragic detailing a people forced into a nomadic existence, their faithful servitude was rewarded with indifference. The eventual return to wandering and the abrupt ending that suggested they simply died en masse, but not why or how. Not even when.

They embodied an ethos, a faithful dedication to an ideal. The ideals of the Paladin were not so different from those of contemporary knights, but the knights lacked a strength that Kendrick felt. The Knights lacked the commitment that permeated the existence of the Paladin.

The book contained also a series of illustrations depicting battles and techniques, postures and attitudes. A section spoke solemnly of daily meditation, the importance of will and the strengthening of the mind.

Once doubt had granted a sorcerer considerable power over Kendrick, crushing doubt, doubt far more crippling than the blow which shortened his left arm. He felt no more doubt. The magic of blood and spit no longer held any power over him.

He moved to the floor and sat with legs crossed beneath him. Anger allowed him to use the dead hand on occasion. His was a sporadic control, little more than twitches. He cleared his mind and felt the fingers of his left hand, the ghostly tendrils of that which was lost, yet lingered to haunt him. He could see with closed eyes the dead hand achieve a kind of life.

Fingers attached by thin cord and cushioned with dust instead of muscle and sinew could feel, in a way. Not the cool rush of air or the heat of his leg. Never would those fingertips taste the soft skin of Alia, but in a way they felt the coarse fabric of the trousers he wore over leather.

Curled fingers tightened into a loose fist for just a moment before relaxing back into death, but this was done without anger.

5

House Gestrel boasted unbroken control of Byzantis for three hundred and six years. Control being a relative term. Prince Jasper of House Gestrel rarely felt in control of anything, his bowels included. The Gestrels were the public face of Byzantis, bur over the last four generations of Gestrels, the power of the venerable house waned.

Prince Jasper was without question an alcoholic.

He remained married, but his mistress, his love who bore him a son was gone. She left him and took the boy as well. His only son, a bastard boy unfit to inherit his name by virtue of his mother; and daughters.

His daughters were much like their mother and hated him. He didn’t blame them.

In order to perpetuate the Gestrel name the prince was negotiating with a powerful merchant to marry his eldest daughter to the merchant’s son wherein the son would take the Gestrel name. The deal once successfully brokered would cost the treasury a fortune in tax exemptions.

Prince Jasper pushed all such thoughts aside as he reached his destination. The narrow, almost claustrophobic, spiral stair he’d descended opened abruptly onto a narrow corridor. One thousand twenty steps down meant a climb of the same.

The torch guttered. No matter, as always a new one awaited, or rather a pair rested unlit in a sconce. He lit one torch from his own and carried one that glowed bright, casting wild, dancing shadows as the fuel for the other died.

At the bridge, the prince paused. He cast the guttering torch into the darkness and watched as the torch fell and winked out far, far below. He crossed the bridge keeping one hand firmly on the torch and the other on the elegant rail.

The chamber he entered was not large, but the shadows gave the illusion of eternity. The true rulers of Byzantis awaited him. These were his princes.

Prince Japer bowed before three figures in dark robes.

6

Kendrick tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He felt the liquid puddle in the corner of his right eye, near the bridge of his nose.

“Open.” Mikal murmured.

Kendrick opened his eyes and his eyelids fluttered. Cool liquid filled his right eye. Cool, yet it burned. Mikal held his head and whispered in a soothing tone of voice. “Steady… steady.”

Kendrick relaxed.

“Why not both?”

“In a moment you’ll see.”

“Tell.”

Mikal sighed. “Alright. To see in the darkness below the city you need more light, or eyes better adapted to the black. I give you a better eye. It will last for a day at least.”

Kendrick grunted.

“In darkness you shall see with this eye, but in light you will be blind, painfully so, at any moment I expect.”

Kendrick blinked. The sight in his right eye blurred and needles began punching the tender flesh of his eye. He squeezed his eyes shut and the pain receded. He felt a cap slip over his head and cool leather over the right side of his face.

“Open.”

Kendrick drew a deep, shuddering breath and opened his eyes. His left eye saw all as it normally did. His right eye saw only stained leather and strong stitches holding the leather together. Beneath the leather patch, where darkness prevails, Kendrick saw every detail.

“Be you in the light of day, or the black as pitch, only half blind.” Mikal smiled.

Night fell. A dark curtain pierced by pinpricks of light hung over the city.

Kendrick saw through the dark.

When he left Mikal’s home, they clasped hands and Mikal wished him good luck.

Kendrick left as he arrived, but he didn’t climb to the streets above. He continued down. The stench of humanity overwhelmed his senses and he gagged and retched endeavoring to keep down the food and drink. And he did.

In time the nausea inducing odor faded, as Kendrick grew accustomed to it.

Mikal’s map was too large to carry in this place, too bulky. The dark lines mapping Byzantis’ underworld were transferred to a small clay disk Kendrick held in his dead fingers.

He looked at the small map, held it up to the one eye not blinded by the stygian darkness. He took a left turn at a fork and continued down sloshing through knee deep sludge. It was the slush of daily living in Byzantis. Kendrick tried not to think about it, just as he tried not to think about the sounds that surrounded him.

He heard moans and the soft sound of liquid lapping against stone. He heard squeaks and even felt things brush against him in the sludge.

Twists and turns, dips and rises, slowly took him out of the sewers. The stone changed in a way he could not define at first. The tunnels ceased to be simple utilitarian passages where the dregs of human waste were sloughed off and instead became something else, something he almost understood, but…

Then it came to him in a rush. His vision was odd, somehow flat and incomplete, The walls seemed to crawl, but that wasn’t right. It was shadow. These walls were carved like those in Castle Thrace, these walls, these dark passages carved in relief; this underworld beneath the city was Fey.

Another realization dawned. This was a slow realization, and completely internal. He felt a kind of peace. A weightlessness permeated his core. His doubts were gone. Hidden insecurities always just out of reach fell away with each step. He recalled sheep in spring, freshly shorn, pink skin raw and scabbed, thick wool set aside, and felt like he imagined they must. Freedom from the weight of winter, the burden of a coat worn for so long as to become a part of you, too much a part. Fear of the change, for the change in many ways was terrible, but the fear was gone. Stripped away like so much of him. And he felt naked, which at first was unnerving, overwhelming until he just stopped caring and he was free.

When he named himself Paladin he’d been unsure of the truth of his words. Unsure if he could emulate those from the past. He no longer needed to emulate the dead or the living. He knew who and what he was and what he must do.

He turned from the path laid before him. He could sense the rightness of his decision.

He drew his sword and tucked the map in his pouch.

Intuition guided him. He found a passage hidden from sight by accident or design. He found it not because of his sight, but the sense that drew him to this place. The passage was narrow, the ceiling hung low and he had to duck and crouch to continue.

The passage opened onto a chasm the depths of which were beyond his sight. He stood on a ledge and looked across to see rock formations and what looked like a tomb.

The tomb, for that was he felt, what it was, called to him. It was too far to jump. Just as Kendrick found the hidden passage, he found the steps. His eyes followed them down the near face of the chasm. He saw the steps lean out over gaping blackness and the bridge that stretched across. The bridge reached the other side and steps rose up to the tomb.

Kendrick left. He was certain he could find this place again. He was equally certain that what he found in the tomb was not yet ready to see the light of day or feel the touch of the living.

7

Unsteady hands groped for the chair, but there were two chairs and Prince Jasper groped for the wrong one. He crashed to the carpet. A glancing blow tipped the chair on its side and rocked the small table upon which rested the flagon and the accompanying cup. A thick honey liqueur sloshed from the rocking cup and the flagon tipped and bounced on the tabletop. The flagon chugged, spilling the liqueur across the carpet.

Drunk, the prince remained on the floor and pissed himself.

The room spun in lazy circles while the prince lay on the thick pile and wished to die. Death, like all those who ought to serve him, refused, preferring instead to witness his misery. And emphasize his humiliation.

The wardrobe doors swung wide and death emerged. It was a dark thing that emerged. It was a demon, a visage of absolute finality. The prince knew, he just knew that he was about to die, and Prince Jasper wanted to live.

Death was a man, rugged and filthy, half his face gone, destroyed, hidden beneath a brown mask without feature.

“No please… more time… more…please…I… I want to live…. I want to leave…” He begged as his throat tightened and he hiccupped and sobs threatened.

Death disappeared from sight and Prince Jasper sobbed wishing for his return.

The prince gasped in shock as water drenched him and he was hauled upright. He sat and Death glared at him with one good eye. And the prince, once again, feared. Feared and wished for Death to go away.

“Leave me be! Why can’t you leave me be?”

Death strode to the writing desk Prince Jasper used on rare occasions. Bleary, red rimmed eyes watched Death. Death took up quill and paper, dipping into ink and scratching words onto paper. Why? Why was Death writing?

Death? No. Yet familiar, very familiar.

A man.

The man balled up the paper and dropped the quill in disgust. The man lifted a piece of paper from a pile and took up a quill, Prince Jasper’s quill. The quill dove into the ink pot and then the scratching. Again.

It was an awful sound, a terrible sound magnified by nausea and a drunken stupor sliding fast into a terrible hangover. His head pounded from the fury of the scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch.

Mercifully the awful sound of the written word died and the man- Kendrick! Yes, a knight, his knight, Sir Kendrick… but Kendrick was a knight no longer. Prince Jasper remembered.

Kendrick melted the sealing wax over a candle. The purple wax began to bubble. He poured some onto the folded paper and pressed the signet ring of Prince Jasper of House Gestrel into the steaming clump.

Kendrick strode to face Prince Jasper. The prince looked up at the Paladin. The prince sat slumped in his chair and the Paladin stood, back straight and hard.

“Prince Jasper,” Kendrick began. Kendrick fought to quell his disdain for the prince even as drool leaked from the prince’s mouth. He held up the sealed letter. “This grants me permission to enter the Wood. It fulfills your promise that I might return-“

Kendrick stopped speaking. The prince began to cry. His thin shoulders shook and his burgeoning jowls jiggled and swayed. Hot tears spilled from his raw eyes and carved clean streaks in his face.

Kendrick slipped the letter first into a leather case, then the case went into his pouch. He squatted before Prince Jasper and took the prince’s face in his hands. He looked him in the eyes, or tried to, Prince Jasper held his eyes firmly shut.

Almost as if to a babe, Kendrick cooed to the prince who continued to quietly shake as bubbles grew and burst from flared nostrils.

“What happened my prince, what happened to you?”

Kendrick realized he could feel the tears and the skin of Prince Jasper with his dead hand. An old blessing came to mind and he said it to his prince and kissed the sobbing man on the forehead.

Prince Jasper felt calm steal over him. He felt the potent liqueur lose its grip on him and the need for more died within him, at least for the moment. And for a moment- may it last forever- he felt like a man once more.

Red rimmed eyes wet with tears opened and within them was clarity plain to see, and Kendrick saw.

“You were always my knight, Sir Kendrick. Always. But I am prince in name only.”

Kendrick scowled and snorted. “Any with eyes saw that you danced on strings held by others and I have eyes.”

“Yes, but you mean Goulding and Cooke.”

Kendrick said nothing. Prince Jasper continued.

“I speak of others and they hold the strings for priests and sorcerers alike.”

For several moments there was silence and Prince Jasper seemed to fall asleep. His eyes opened. “Take the letter and use it well. They seek relics, three skulls, to.... Take it from them.”

“Who?” Kendrick asked.

“I don’t know.”

Sober and miserable, Prince Jasper stood up, slapping the cradling fingers of Kendrick away. On weary feet, Prince Jasper shuffled to a cabinet. In it were bottles. He tore the cork from one and drank from the bottle. His back was turned from Kendrick and remained so while Kendrick left and Prince Jasper drank, never turning, and hoping, hoping that Kendrick might strike him dead.

The blow never came.

When Prince Jasper fell, he was accompanied by his bottle, empty of all but the dregs.

Prince Jasper wept. He wept in relief. He wept in despair. Prince jasper lived. That was both the problem and the solution.

8

As soon as all sight was lost to him, Kendrick lifted the cap from his head and half the world lit up and revealed itself. He continued down the steps and pondered the things he learned. Most disturbing to him was the revelation that Goulding and Cooke, while influential, were not the true power behind Prince Jasper.

His sword was in his hand without thought.

And what, he wondered was the purpose of the relics, this trio of skulls? One Kendrick had, the other rested in the bowels of Castle Thrace, and the third?

Guided by intuition, time and quick steps carried him to his destination; the chasm. Cautious steps took him over the edge and down the steps. The steps were narrow and slick, somehow smooth without gloss. Each step down felt precarious as if at any moment he would slip and fall, tumble down the steps like a ball and finally be cast out into the chasm to fall into the smothering black and hang there like the fly caught by the spider. The steps were like ice.

When he reached the bridge, it was no better. Narrow and slick he walked across inch by inch sliding his booted feet across rather than lifting a foot to stride forward.

Short of breath, he climbed the stairs on the opposite side of the chasm. Each move carefully orchestrated to avoid the fall.

The tomb seemed old and new at once. A queasy feeling tumbled through his gut as he looked at the door. Ancient Bone Wood banded in iron without rust. Iron rings dangled from the right and left.

Kendrick sheathed his sword and grasped both rings at once and pulled. The rings were not iron, but Bone Wood too.

The doors swung wide on dry hinges that moved as if freshly oiled. Much later, Kendrick would look at his dead hand and remember grasping the ring, remember the muscles that were not there straining ever so slightly to pull, remember the way he’d taken it for granted.

Inside the tomb lay a coffin. It rose from the stone without seam until his eye rested on the lid.

He pushed on the lid, his dead hand useless. He braced his back and used his heels and the stone grated on stone. The sound seemed ear shattering in the silence. The lid crashed to the opposite floor. Kendrick looked inside and saw no body, no scraps of cloth from a shroud, no gifts to carry into eternity, nothing. He saw nothing at all. In the place of something was a void, deep and black.

9

The hole was ragged and uneven. As if something from below tunneled up and grabbed the body. Kendrick assumed a body had once been interred there, but how could he be sure? The Fey were tricksters according to legend; cruel and malicious laughing things. Not so different from the people of Uomtiem. That southern city bore an unpleasant reputation, yet the people, one by one were simply people.

Kendrick climbed into the coffin and began his descent. The tunnel was not large and he scooted down it on his ass.

The tunnel opened into a larger system of tunnels carved by defter hands. He drew his sword; Kendrick sniffed the air and grimaced. Something animal lived in this place. It stank of life, the press of bodies, and the stench of sweat, feces and urine. It reeked of the hovels just below street level where the poorest drunks slunk to drink themselves into a stupor. And these tunnels reeked of rats.

Intuition nudged him to the right and he followed. Faint phosphorescent traces smeared the walls. Kendrick stopped and closed the one eye that could see in the black and found that his left eye could see the faintest of outlines. And motion.

His eye snapped open and he saw the shape darting at him.

Slashing, he leapt back.

The air split and the thing rushed at Kendrick.

Fighting panic and the peculiar nature of his sword, Kendrick attacked. His sword bit flesh and blood sprayed the walls.

The attacker staggered and fell. Kendrick turned a slow circle and saw more of them bleeding out of the shadows.

They were small.

“Children?” Kendrick whispered.

But no, not children. They were small. The size of a ten year old with long, gangly limbs.

The tallest of them, bore angry eyes level with his chest.

They were hunched, necks bobbed up, down; shoulders slumped. Their pale skin was colorless their eyes, large and showing only pupils in dim light. Thin greasy hair hung limp from their heads. They were all naked. They hissed at him.

The one Kendrick had struck twitched on the floor. The steady squirt of arterial blood slowed and stopped. Kendrick thought the corpse was receiving as much attention as he was.

Kendrick stepped over the dead one and sword at the ready moved on. They watched with wary eyes, but as soon as he was around a bend, they leapt on their dead.

When presented with a choice, Kendrick allowed his intuition to be his guide and this turned out to be a sound tactic. It led him to a large room with what seemed to him, to be a shrine.

The center piece of the shrine was a skull resting atop an ordered pile of bones. The skull was that of a man. Steady hands had painted glyphs on the surface of the skull.

Kendrick picked it up with his dead hand and held it up so that he might stare into its eyes. Empty sockets stared back.

In the Drowned Castle, or rather in the dungeons of the Drowned Castle, Kendrick found a painted skull hidden behind a tapestry that should have rotted to nothing in centuries past. That skull, Mikal believed was that of a mixed breed, man and Fey. Within Castle Thrace, the castle in the center of the Wood, was a skull. A Fey skull, painted with the dark script of magic favored by the Fey. And here was a man’s skull, painted with magic glyphs, in a shrine worshipped by what?

By Fey.

The little people were the Fey. Or what was left of them.

These Fey were broken and feral; they, the remnants of greatness brought low. Kendrick saw them. Saw the casual cruelty in their facial structure. He’d seen it on the walls inside Castle Thrace. He’d felt it.

On the precipice of extinction and they crept beneath the stones. They fled below the roots of the monstrous trees around their castle.

The dead fingers of his dead hand turned numb. He juggled the skull.

The inspiration that filled him with insight as to plight of the Fey, vanished.

The skull clattered to the floor. The sound of hollow bone and the chatter of angry crows is quite similar. Kendrick scooped the skull up and tucked it under his arm.

Kendrick turned to leave. He saw several of them on the other side of the door. They bared teeth and hissed at him. He drew his sword and strode forward.

Each step he took seemed to echo. He scowled at the small creatures. He had no desire to kill them, but felt he must take the skull.

They hissed.

Kendrick stopped only a few paces from the door and looked them over. They looked to be starving. They were skinny, ribs showed, swollen, distended bellies made a mockery of pregnancy. Kendrick noted the closest to him was the biggest, both in height and girth. The rest seemed to follow him. A few wiped at dark splotches around their mouths, transferring the black liquid to the backs of their hands.

If Kendrick killed him, maybe the rest would scatter. If he scared him off maybe the rest would follow.

Kendrick roared. It was a guttural shout, primal in a way, and raw. He felt the strain on his throat as he did it.

They shrank back snarling.

Kendrick charged them shouting still.

They broke and ran.

10

Climbing up the tunnel, into the coffin, and out of the tomb proved to be of no great consequence. Crossing the chasm offered no new challenge. After that the return to Mikal’s house was simple enough.

The Fey had run from him and he’d chased for a moment. He’d waved his sword, but drawn no more blood.

It was in the moment they fled he could’ve cut many down. Perhaps it would’ve been a blessing. A dark blessing. A large feast with fewer mouths to feed.

The idea repulsed Kendrick.

Before emerging into the light, Kendrick donned the cap with the mask and entered the house to no fanfare.

Mikal sat at his table idly drinking wine and chatting with a man whose eyes looked strained by sun and squinting. He wore the robes of a priest. His skin was sun dark and tinged with red. In truth, he looked more like a bandit than a priest.

Mikal looked at Kendrick, his eyes flicked to the skull and Kendrick saw a hint of surprise there.

“This, a knight?” The man asked. Mikal turned to answer, but Kendrick spoke before he could say a word.

“No more than you are a priest.” Kendrick’s tone was cold, he stared at the man with a passive eye that was somehow hard and unyielding.

The man’s face hardened and he rose and put a hand on a long, slim dagger up his sleeve. “Watch it boy, I’m a dangerous man.”

Kendrick spoke no words. He cradled the skull in his dead hand, tucked against his belly, and made no move for his sword. He made no move at all. He remained still.

Mikal looked from one to the other, back and forth. Mikal debated about whether his words would be wasted or not and decided to keep his lips shut tight.

The man masquerading as a priest faltered. He licked thin lips stained purple by wine, exposing small teeth stained by the same. An inch of his dagger gleamed sharp in the light, yet Kendrick said and did nothing. The man looked away, a smile catching hold of his lips, at least in the corners, then, he sat.

Mikal shrugged and exhaled a held lung full of air, the wind from his lungs fluttered the flames of a few candles.

“Edmund the Pious, meet Kendrick.”

Kendrick refused to speak and only watched Edmund the Pious. Edmund looked nervous now. Nervous and excited by the feeling, it was a sensation he was unused to. He looked at Mikal and said, “He’s a cold one then.” Edmund spoke, a slight tremor in his voice, even as the smile spread, ever so slightly; and the sharp corners of his mouth were pulled closer to his eyes.

“Edmund is our priest.”

Kendrick looked at Mikal and said. “Fitting, a disgraced knight, a piss poor magician, and an excommunicated priest. Our Poor Knight and his thief will carry more honor than the rest of us combined.”

Edmund the Pious laughed and the tension dissipated.

Kendrick dropped the skull into Mikal’s lap and pulled up a chair. He poured wine into Mikal’s cup and dragged his plate towards him. Mikal’s dinner consisted of a pile of caramelized onions over rice with a half eaten chicken, fat congealing into jelly beneath. Kendrick drank from the cup and began eating.

Mikal gazed at the skull.

After a moment of study, Mikal regaled Kendrick with the truth, such as it was, of Edmund the Pious. Edmund offered small corrections and inserted numerous boasts, but the gist of the story was this:

Edmund was the eleventh son of a modest farmer. He was sold to the priesthood as a boy of six. He learned to read and write. He memorized the Forgotten canon- Edmund chuckled at that description and said he’d always found it funny the way priests made so much of the dogma up, then argued as to the interpretation.

Edmund never resented his father for selling him off, it got the family coin and reduced the number of mouths to feed, and he lived fairly close to his father’s farm and visited once a week, And never did he feel a hollow in his guts for lack of food.

At the age of nineteen he was scribing for the priests, work he enjoyed, he’d vowed at that point silence and chastity.

His father was murdered by a knight, Sir Orlin.

Edmund saw the look of shame on Kendrick’s face when he heard that fact.

Edmund left the abbey without permission and sought justice for his father from another knight. Sir Horace acted as Edmund’s champion and died for it in a duel that forever proclaimed the righteous innocence of Sir Orlin.

Edmund refused to let the matter drop and in turn murdered the knight himself when Sir Orlin was drunk, unarmed, unarmored, and on top of an unwilling farm girl.

A death sentence hung over his head ever since. Edmund threw off the shackles of his vows and turned to a life of crime stating he could only be hung once, or beheaded as the case may be.

“Suppose they could hang me, then hack off my head, but by then I likely wouldn’t notice, so gods bless ‘em if they do.” Edmund laughed.

He still played at being a priest and gave half of all he stole to the smaller, poorer temples, though he’d been an outlaw for far longer than he was a priest. But there were little ones that ate from the coin he plundered, so in that he owned a ready made justification for his crimes. Thus he kept his conscience clean enough; all the while filling chest upon chest with so much coin that when he retired he’d have the requisite coin to hire someone else to wipe his ass.

Kendrick dropped the last of the bones on the plate and licked his fingers.

“We need a pair of fighting men.” He said.

“Your responsibility.” Mikal said. “I assumed Aemon and Jericho.”

“No.”

“They are experienced.” Mikal stated.

“They are,” began Kendrick. “I want them at my estate. I count on their particular skills in defense of my home and those in it. Their home too. In some ways it’s more theirs.”

Mikal nodded. Edmund looked at Kendrick. “How does a disgraced knight keep his lands?”

Kendrick wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Those who tug on the strings fear me, I suppose.” He shrugged. “Prince Jasper owes me, and I divorced myself from the knights. You could say I cast them out.”

“I know some talented cutpurses, and some fellows that are wicked with a crossbow and a knife in the back, but…”

Kendrick waved a hand in dismissal. “Our thief is in place. I need knights, squires, men-at-arms…”

Mikal drained the cup and looked at the skull.

“I assume you got the letter.”

“I did.”

“Then I would hear of this.” Mikal gestured with the painted skull.

Kendrick looked at the dead fingers on his dead hand and made them twitch.

Mikal saw this and the corners of his mouth twitched.

Edmund nodded that he too wished to hear of the skull, so Kendrick told them.

“Seems,” Kendrick began, “your map for the world beneath this fair city is somewhat incomplete.”

Kendrick took the skull from Mikal. He gazed into the empty sockets, into the dark interior of bone and told the tale.

11

The tunnels beneath Byzantis were long and varied, rough and smooth, carved by water and by hands. The skill of the artisans was as varied as the paths winding through the eternal darkness.

Three men sat around a table. The table was large and round and not made of stone, but instead of a mushroom that grew vast in size. This mushroom, when cured properly became hard as stone at a quarter the weight. The mushroom was extinct and the process of its preservation lost in antiquity.

Each man wore a mask; they were featureless and without distinction. Smooth planes, ovals for eyes, holes for the mouth, noses represented by a soft protrusion in the center. The masks were a bland beige color polished by centuries to a high gloss. The masks were much like the table top. Made of the same stuff.

The men wore the masks always when in the presence of the other two. They wore robes also. The robes were thick wool, un-dyed and simple in cut with a large hood. Padding in the chest and shoulders further concealed identities. The hem of the robes touched the floor either sitting or standing, for all any of them knew, their counterparts may have been wearing boots with tall heels to conceal height. It was an assumption that all were men. All three spoke in harsh whispers at their meetings.

Only beneath the city were they known, only beneath the city was their cabal acknowledged as reality. These three, a secret triumvirate of “princes” hidden from the view of all save the prince who danced as they commanded.

They sought the so-called Relic of the Damned; the name was no more than a melodramatic misnomer for three skulls of varied origin, all painted with glyphs and letters. The skulls were a puzzle, the means to some great spell, some powerful magic. The skulls were the key to unlocking some dark magic, tried once and failed.

“What will we do when we have them?” This one who spoke just then, he thought of the others as Little Brother and Uncle.

Uncle answered. “We will determine the nature of their power, and use it.”

Little Brother coughed. “Use it how?”

“Rule the world perhaps, or destroy it.” Uncle answered and shrugged as if either conclusion suited him.

The man who saw the others as Uncle and Little Brother thought of himself as Grandfather. He thought this not because he felt himself to be eldest, on the contrary, he estimated his age as between the other two, but in terms of wisdom and leadership.

Uncle was a brilliant man, ruthless and certain, but almost certainly a maniac. Little Brother too, was brilliant, but wary and afraid. The perfect counter to the odd Uncle, also fodder for Uncle to bully.

“Their use will be determined when we have them.” Grandfather spoke and the others listened. The idea was an equal partnership, but reality requires a role for each, responsibility divided, leadership within the tight circle was claimed by Grandfather. “I fear our pet prince has at last thrown his usefulness away.”

Little Brother nodded. “My sources tell me his consumption of alcohol has increased dramatically and that he is now chewing on the coca leaves when he is conscious.”

Grandfather nodded as if this were new information; in a way it was, he now knew that Little Brother had sources inside Prince Jasper’s palace and those sources were few.

Who are you? Grandfather thought as he looked at Little Brother.

Soon, perhaps, he would know Little Brother without the mask. At that time, Grandfather thought he might kill Little Brother, him and the cronies who fed him information.

“Good news. Drunk men are a danger to themselves on a stair.”

Grandfather looked at Uncle and catalogued the tone of voice that for a brief moment wasn’t a whisper, but clear speech. Long ago, the man proved himself blood-thirsty.

The meeting ended soon after, having decided that the prince was not long for the world. The only question, the only division within the trio was about the knight- No! The traitor insisted Uncle- Kendrick.

Uncle wished to have the man cut down, to send a cadre of knights through Prince Jasper, to kill Kendrick, slaughter his household and the peasants under his protection, and burn the estate. Grandfather listened to the venom in Uncle’s voice. The man hated Kendrick. Grandfather decided this was proof of his suspicions; Uncle was a knight of some influence.

Little Brother refused to sanction the act believing it put them at risk, that Kendrick showed a surprising knack for surviving situations in which he was supposed to have been killed.

In this, Little Brother was correct. Kendrick possessed some quality that kept him alive and striving forward.

Little Brother conceded that the estate and most of those on it would die, but his fear was that Kendrick would live, live and seek them out.

And really his fear was that if Kendrick sought them out, all their skins would soon be punctured. While Little Brother had no wish to see his power eroded, he had even less a wish to die.

Uncle hated, Little Brother feared, and Grandfather was unsure. He opted to err on the side of caution and so an assault on Kendrick was denied- for the time being.

The decision- to stay their collective hands for now- was arrived at via a simple vote. Uncle the dissenter was near inconsolable in his rage.

Grandfather wondered if perhaps Uncle might act independently of this cabal.

He wondered if perhaps Uncle might need to be dealt with.

Grandfather knew Uncle under his mask. Knew him quite well.

12

The magic that gave him sight in the dark faded. He no longer needed the leather flap over his eye. The world looked a touch brighter, but that was fading and soon would be gone.

Kendrick and Edmund became fast friends. They found that they held opinions in common of not just the knights, but the priesthood and of course the sorcerers.

The bandit priest was quite the aficionado of knives. The blade up his sleeve was a long thin stiletto used for stabbing. He wore two daggers on his right hip as he favored his left hand. One was long, single edged, and the blade curved to the point and Edmund demonstrated its use in slashing. The second dagger was just as long, the blade being double edged, it undulated in waves to the tip. Both edges were honed to razor sharpness. The flat of the blade looked like wood eaten by termites. It was criss-crossed by shallow trails through the pitted metal. Only the edges gleamed. It was excellent for slashing or stabbing and often as not, poison was applied.

Pious as he was, Edmund was very interested in acquiring a Bone Wood dagger.

Mikal, tiring of the comparison of weapons sat at a small desk scribbling on parchment. He dipped his quill into the inkwell and scratched across the page. Upon completion, he scattered sand across the page, blew to dry the ink, rolled the page, and set it aside.

One scroll sat complete. Hours passed from start to completion.

The night was old. A slim moon rose, raced behind bloated clouds, and sank.

The sound of a ram crashing into wood echoed.

Mikal stood from his desk. He set his quill aside and picked up the completed scroll. He untied the strip of hemp that encircled the paper.

The slam of iron against wood boomed through the house. The bar rattled. Wood creaked and split. Splinters leapt from splitting grain.

Edmund the Pious uttered a prayer, an eloquent blessing on them all and then muttered a string of profanities that made Kendrick blush.

Boom!

Followed by the creak of weathered timber under strain.

Boom!

The grain began to split like slitted eyes opening.

Boom!

The door cracked, the wood shrieked a painful lament, the bar, intact, fell away as the brass bolts leapt from twisted timber, and the night peered in.

Kendrick stood and waited for the door to burst, he flexed his fingers and drew his sword. When the door fell he was ready.

Edmund grinned at him. He held the poisoned dagger in his hand and his cup in the other; though he didn’t drink. He too, was ready when the door fell.

The door split wide, the bar clattered on stone, the bracket holding the bar tore free. Armed and armored men leapt through the breach.

13

Sir Beason charged through the wreckage of the door. He wore breast plate and half helm, gauntlets and greaves. He carried sword and shield and intended to kill Kendrick the traitor himself.

Sir Beason howled a primal war cry.

On many occasions he’d used such a cry to great effect. Peasants and part time soldiers fled before him. Muddy faces contorted by fear and whimpering pleas of mercy acted at food and drink for him.

Fox and fowl quaked when he roared.

Sir Beason faced men of greater will. If faced with the grueling task of guiding an ox and a plow, Sir Beason would have broken, just as that peasant broke before a charging knight. Sir Beason had cut down peasant fathers to rape their peasant daughters. They all broke before him. And so too he thought, Kendrick must break.

To his surprise, his shout was greeted with silence. Kendrick sneered, said nothing and strode to meet the challenge.

But it was the soft looking old man in robes that met Sir Beason’s challenge first. He held out a parchment that curled at the top and bottom and his voice was low, harsh and commanding as his eyes scanned the page.

Sir Beason had no idea what was said. The damn wizard tore the paper; it burst into black flame and was gone in a puff of black smoke.

From the smoke leapt a creature. It waved a dozen or more wings, or tentacles? Sir Beason never knew for sure. He knew as his sword passed through it, that he was dead. Even so he raised his shield. The tentacles, or wings slithered past his shield and into his armor. They moved like water, they moved like smoke.

Sir Beason screamed.

It seemed to his own ears that he screamed a thousand years before dying. He clawed at the blackness as it filled his mouth, blinded his eyes, thrust into his nostrils, and stilled his heart.

Sir Welby saw the narrow, gray haired priest drive a stiletto up, under Sir Beason’s chin. His step faltered. He’d seen the smoke and Sir Beason scream in agony, but for no reason. The knight was glad the screaming stopped.

Sir Welby, wore a breast plate and half helm too. He wore greaves and gauntlets, but preferred a great sword over a shield. He dropped his sword and grabbed for his dagger as Kendrick dodged the swing and jumped into Sir Welby’s guard. His hand never reached the dagger. He looked down to see the Bone Wood blade punch through steel and cleave his heart. It was in that moment that he realized his heart had been hammering in his ears.

The hammering stopped.

Seldon the Quick saw the two knights fall. Then he saw a wavy blade slicing his way. He was characteristically quick and received only a shallow cut on his cheek. The cut burned. He concluded he was not quick enough as he fell to the floor feeling no pain, feeling nothing, not even his weight crashing to the stones.

Still feeling nothing, his body numb, unable to breathe despite his desperate attempts to gasp just one last breath as black filled the edges of his sight.

Sir Lyman froze. The horror of what was happening overwhelmed him. The old wizard just looked at him. He wanted to throw his sword down, but could not. He watched Sir Yale attack Kendrick as the former knight pulled his bloody sword from Sir Welby. Sir Yale lost a hand and ran. The last that Sir Lyman saw was Kendrick’s sword thrusting into his belly and twisting. His guts spilled to the floor.

Sir Quinn dropped his sword and called for quarter. The priest looked ready to kill, but Kendrick stayed his hand. The knight looked over his shoulder at his squire and shouted. “Sword down! We surrender! For your mother’s sake son! Throw it down!”

Sir Lyman, unable to open his hand saw- for the barest instant- the world spin. He blinked as he watched his body crumple before him headless. Ah, his last thought the realization of the end.

Cass, son and squire of Sir Quinn cast down his sword.

14

Radburn poured wine over the powder in the cup. It was tasteless and would help Prince Jasper sleep.

Radburn had been steward to his prince for many years and was privy to all of his prince’s secrets. All of them. Radburn was an invisible man, the kind of man the powerful cannot see lest he will it. Their eyes slid past him.

Cooke and Goulding. Goulding and Cooke. Priest and sorcerer. Sorcerer and priest. Both thought they made Prince Jasper dance. Both thought that their influence was secret. Both were fools. Both were influenced by whispers. They never knew where those whispers came from.

Radburn knew.

Radburn knew much that was hidden.

Prince Jasper gulped his wine as he listened to the report being given. It seemed a group of knights with a pair of squires in tow attacked the upstart magician Mikal in his home. All but two died.

Radburn was not surprised to hear of Kendrick’s involvement.

Not much surprised Radburn.

He considered adding the powder to the cups of Cooke and Goulding. In the end he decided against it. Other opportunities would present themselves to him and for now they were more asset than liability, but it was a near thing.

A very near thing indeed.

15

Grandfather said nothing to Little Brother and Little Brother spoke no words to Grandfather.

Hours passed in the dark, in silence.

It seemed Uncle was dead.

Grandfather was perturbed for three reasons; one; now they were two and that was a weakness; two; they no longer carried the reins that led the knights; three; he was unsure how to replace Uncle.

Grandfather stood and made to leave when Little Brother said:

“I’ve heard our prince is ill.”

Grandfather nodded.

Little Brother continued. “How will we replace our foolish knight?”

Grandfather shook his head. “I don’t know.” He left.

16

Prince Jasper died seven days after the attack at Mikal’s house.

Three days later, his former mistress and bastard son were murdered in their beds. The following day his eldest daughter, Jael crowned herself princess of Byzantis over Prince Jasper’s dead body.

17

Mikal found Kendrick’s estate was not so bad. All of his things, his possessions, the important ones at least, had come with them. The rest they left behind in a house boarded up from the inside.

Five corpses, four knights and one squire were left in graceless heaps on the street and warnings were drawn in their blood to stay out. One had to be dragged back after he ran a hundred feet or more clutching his bleeding stump. The trail of blood leaving was sporadic, frantic, and artistic. Being dragged back left a broken trail of coagulating blood drying to black.

At the time Mikal joked about Kendrick bleeding out when his arm was hacked uoff, but how Kendrick was too stubborn and stupid to realize he should be dead. None laughed. They threw the knight on top and tossed him his severed hand. The hand flopped as a fish free of water.

Mikal hoped it was enough.

They were five now. Sir Quinn and his son Cass swore fealty to Kendrick. It was a miraculous sight to see. And once they passed beyond the gate and into the Wood Beyond the Wall, they would be seven.

Sir Quinn brought his wife to the estate along with the rest of his brood. Most were young and dirty, of indeterminate age, at least from each other.

Winter snow blanketed the land. After the final frost they intended to ride north to the gate and enter the Wood.

The Paladin, a priest, a wizard, and a knight, and his squire enter the Wood. Mikal liked the ring of it, the way it all rolled off his tongue, like the beginning of a joke.

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