Unfinished, continued

Here is a continuation of that snippet of a fantasy romance story that I posted in “Unfinished.” Perhaps I’ll write more of this tale, after all…

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The Ties That Bind … continues

Warner was a bear of a man with shaggy brown hair and, incongruously, a short, neatly trimmed beard and mustache. His brown eyes were keen and observant but not very expressive. Despite his size, or perhaps because of it, he was a reserved, gentle man who moved with efficiency and before-thought. When Adele saw him mooring the boat at the dock she felt the tension that had been gathering around her shoulders since that morning ease a little. 

She restrained herself from immediately running down to the lake to greet him. Instead, she made sure that she had his lunch ready, and that his pipe and smokeweed pouch were out on the little table beside his shabby armchair. She placed a warm pasty, a plate of greens, a strawberry tart, and a pint of cold beer on a tray and carried it out to the backyard, kicking open the door. Warner liked to eat his lunch on the work bench by the vegetable garden when the weather was clement. Adele often joined him, but not always to eat. Lunchtime was whenever Warner came home after his morning fishing excursions, and he didn’t expect her to wait on him.

The young woman set the tray down on the workbench and ran back inside to procure a cup of tea and a tart for herself. She stood by the table and waited, quivering with anticipation like a well-trained dog. It wasn’t long before she heard boots crunching in the gravel along the steep path leading up from the lake to the cottage. A wide-brimmed hat popped into view, and then a shaggy head crested the rise of the hill. Warner grinned at her, his teeth a flash of white splitting his beard. He carried a string full of gutted perch over one shoulder. “Still there, eh?” he called, teasing.

“I see you actually did go fishing this time,” Adele shot back playfully, arms akimbo.

“Successfully,” the burly man added, shaking the stringer of lake trout.

Laughing, Adele took his catch into the kitchen and put the fish into the sink to clean later. When she came out, Warner had removed his hat and was munching on his pasty, staring out at the lake. She sat down across from him, playing with her teacup. He gazed right past her, as if she wasn’t there, even after he finished his food. Adele schooled herself to patience, drank her tea and ate her tart. Warner continued to stare and frown at the lake. Finally, Adele lost patience and asked, “Well? are they coming?” Belatedly, she added, “sir.”

“Hmm?” Warner raised his eyebrows and focused on her. “Sorry, Adele, I was considering our next move. Yes, they’ll send someone. That’s all I can say for now.”

“Oh.” The young woman looked down into her lap. “I…I apologize, sir. For my impatience.”

Warner snorted with amusement. “You’re quite readily forgiven, initiate. Me, I’d go stir-crazy, having to sit in a tiny cottage all day.” He gulped down the last of his beer with relish and stifled a belch with the back of his hand. “Just what do you do all day, Adele?”

Adele smirked at him. “Oh, nothing much.” She ticked off the points on her fingers. “I just cook all the food, do the gardening, go to market, tend to the chickens, wash all your dirty clothes, and keep the place spick and span so that you can drag in muck on your boots every afternoon. ” She leaned her forearms on the table, her blue eyes dancing with mirth. “I’m basically your mother. Oh! Yeah. And I read sometimes.” She blushed, and added, “sir.”

The big man laughed outright. “Zifa was right. You’re a gem, girl.”

Adele propped her chin in her hands and smiled nostalgically. “I miss Zifa,” she murmured. “I hope she comes soon.”

“Me too, Adele,” he sighed. “Me too.”

They were silent for several moments. The man brooding, the young woman resolving an inner debate. Presently, she blurted out: “A man came by today.”

“Really?” Warner came out of his reverie. “This happen often?”

Adele shook her head, embarrassed. “No, sir. But I told him…that you were my…my husband.” She bit her lip, steeling herself for a reprimand.

Instead, he simply looked at her, amused. “Did you, now? Trying to scare him off? I bet he was hideous. Hunchback?” He grinned.

She chuckled in spite of herself. “No, no hunchback. He was tall and…well-built. Dark hair. Dressed like a ranger. His eyes reminded me of emeralds.” She frowned, looking off into the middle distance. “And he walked without making a sound or casting a shadow.”

Suddenly uncomfortable, she looked away from the man. “I…kind of invited him to supper tomorrow.”

“Hmm.” Warner scratched his beard, scanning the lake pensively. “Let’s move this conversation inside, initiate.”

“Yes, sir.” Adele took the dishes in. Warner held the door for her. Before he stepped inside himself, the man took another glance around the yard with eyes that that missed nothing. His expression was grim.

***

Adele knelt on the verge of the flower garden in the front yard, pulling up weeds. Warner sat smoking his pipe on the front porch steps. The late afternoon sun was wheeling its way toward early evening and the biting insects would be out soon. The young woman hoped that she would finish the task before then. It was her self-imposed penance; however, she drew the line at having her blood sucked out by vesperflies.

“Those trout tasted real good,” Warner observed. He blew a smoke ring. “What was that stuff you put on ’em?”

“Lemon butter, mostly,” she said, yanking out a particularly stubborn dandelion. “But I also added some parsley and thyme into the batter. Plus some other herbs. My secret.”

 “If you plan on fixing the chicken the same way tomorrow I reckon your admirer will be hell-bent on stealing you away from me,” Warner said dryly. “If anyone calls asking for me, tell them I’m cleaning my musket.”

“Ha ha,” Adele said sarcastically. And then, she chuckled. “I’ll make sure to give Zifa the recipe when we return to Shidkey.”

“When this is all over,” the big man muttered, puffing on his pipe.

“Yeah…” The young woman sighed as she pulled the last weed. She stretched, knuckling her back. “So, when are you going to tell me why you brought me here, sir?”

“What do you mean?” Warner asked in a mild tone. “I’d have thought it was obvious. So you could take care of me while Zifa’s clearing up that mess in Copper Harbor.” Smiling slightly, the big man tapped the dottle out of his pipe and stamped on the embers to snuff them.

Adele gathered the weeds up in a bundle and carried them over to the compost heap. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t believe you. There are others more experienced in fieldwork – “

“Well, you are the best cook in the entire convent,” he interjected. “And how do you think those ‘more experienced’ initiates became ‘more experienced’ in the first place?” He waved his pipe at her in emphasis. “You can’t expect to spend your entire youth holed up in the Archives. It was high time that you had an opportunity to learn the ropes.”

Adele bit her lip. “Sir, I appreciate my chance to participate in active service. I wasn’t complaining. It’s just…” She sighed, spreading her hands out helplessly.

“You’re used to having all the answers at your fingertips.” Warner packed more smokeweed into his pipe. “Well, now you’ll have to get used to not knowing everything.”

Adele looked at him steadily, mulling over his words. She was trained in obedience. If Warner said she didn’t need to know, then she didn’t need to know. “I just don’t get it,” she said softly. “Why would you need an inexperienced Binder on a mission to liase with – “

The big man clicked at her and held up one hand, his brown eyes alert. Silenced, the young woman reflexively clutched at the small lump concealed under her bodice and edged toward the front porch and Warner. “Time to retire for the night,” the big man commanded with quiet assurance.

The two went into the cottage. Warner bolted both doors. This was something that he hadn’t done before. It made Adele nervous and she wondered at it as she hastily got things ready for the next day in the kitchen. Then she closed all the windows and drew the curtains while the man lit the kerosene lamp in the sitting room. When she joined him, he was paging through the prayer book. Just as she had every evening for the past twelve days, Adele knelt beside the burly man as he read through the liturgy, responding on cue. When the service was completed, the two sang a short hymn together.

Afterward, Warner wished Adele a good night and sent the young woman to her tiny bedroom. Once he heard the snick of her door latch closing, he went to an oaken chest and removed his musket.

Unfinished

Here is the beginning snippet of a fantasy romance novel I began crafting over a decade ago. There isn’t much to follow this little introduction, but I did work out an outline of the plot and the premise behind it – which naturally involves a forbidden relationship. I haven’t decided yet whether this story takes place in the Teharan Cycle universe.

Please let me know if you think the prose has promise, or if I ought to abandon it.

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The Ties that Bind

Adele was shaking out the kitchen rug when the man ambled up to the front gate for the first time. It had been an uneventful summer morning, much like the past twelve mornings since she and Warner had been sent to set up housekeeping in the last cottage on the road by the lake. Warner had left before dawn, as usual, presumably to go out fishing on the lake. At least, the boat was gone from its berth by the dock. 

There were pasties in the oven, her own special oatmeal recipe was bubbling in the cookpot, and bacon was frying on the stove. She could smell the aroma and hear the pop and sizzle of the bacon through the kitchen windows. All the cottage windows were still open from the night before in an effort to dissipate the sweltering heat of the previous day. Adele had come out with the rug as an excuse to escape the combined heat of the kitchen fireplace and stove. Thus far, the day promised to be cooler than yesterday, praise the Lord. She had felt a comfortable breeze blowing from off of the lake and seen the tell-tale clouds in the sky. There was dew on the grass and the leaves of the garden greens. She reminded herself to gather some greens later for a salad as she twitched and cracked the rag woven rug in the early morning sunlight.

“Good morning,” a deep voice rumbled.

Adele gasped, nearly whipping the rug into her own face. She hadn’t even heard the man’s crunching footsteps approaching along the gravel road. Now he leaned up against the garden gate, tall and dark-haired, clad in the typical leathers and cambric of a wilderness ranger. His smile was slow and lazy, like the summer afternoons of late. “I smelled something toothsome,” he continued, winking green eyes at her. “And as I’m feeling a mite peckish, I thought I’d investigate.”

“Oh,” was all Adele could think to say, clutching the rag rug up at chest-level as a shield.

The man chuckled, shaking his head slightly as he straightened. “Ah, I’ve gone and startled you. Where are my manners?” He placed one large hand against his broad chest and dipped his clean-shaven chin in a curt bow. “I’m called Hadrien.” He gestured off to his right, where the gravel road eventually petered out into the wilderness. “Have a little shack out in the wild green yonder.”

“Oh! Good morning,” Adele said finally, after taking a deep breath. Awkwardly, she smiled at the stranger, rolling the rag rug up and draping it over the front porch railing. She wiped off her hands on her apron. “I’m Adele. I live here,” she added, and immediately felt stupid.

Once again, he turned that long, slow smile upon her. “So I gathered, Miss Adele.” He spared the cottage and well-kept yard a cursory glance before returning his focus to her. “But surely not all by your lonesome, a little slip of a thing like you?”

“Of course not!” she replied. “Warner lives here, too. He’s…um, out fishing right now. He’s…” And then, feeling the danger of those bright green eyes on her, she blurted, “He’s my husband.”

The tall man’s smile widened. “Well, naturally. I had assumed that was the case.” He glanced at her left hand. Self-consciously, Adele covered it with her right.

“Um, I take off my ring when I’m doing chores,” she said, proud of herself for coming up with an explanation on the fly. “We…Warner and I just got married a few weeks ago, and I don’t want to get it dirty.” Nervously, she rubbed at the offensively bare heart-finger.

“My apologies, Mrs. Adele,” he replied, touching his forehead in a sort of salute. “That would be a none-to-subtle hint that I am keeping you from your work.” He stepped back from the gate, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “I shall bid you ‘good day’ and – ” He started to walk away.

“No, wait!” Adele called out. 

Raising a jet eyebrow inquisitively, the stranger turned back toward her.

Like a jittery fawn, Adele approached the front gate and stopped several feet away. She smiled apologetically up at the tall man. “I can’t invite you in because Warner is gone, but…if you are hungry, I could bring out some breakfast to you, Mr. Hadrien.”

He smiled. “I would be much obliged to you, Mrs. Adele.”

“Just wait right here.” The young woman dashed back into the cottage. 

“Certainly,” he murmured after her, still smiling.

Adele entered the kitchen to find that the bacon was perfectly crisp and that the pasties were very nearly cooked through. She brought out a bowl of oatmeal and a generous serving of bacon to the stranger.

“Thank you, Mrs. Adele,” he said quite seriously. “You are a very charitable young lady.” He began to eat, making appreciative sounds.

“It’s no problem.” She twisted the hem of her apron around in her hands. “I even have pasties coming out of the oven soon. So…when you are done with that, I can send a couple with you.”

He nodded, humming his enthusiastic agreement. Adele grinned, and went back into the cottage, remembering to take the rug back inside. If there was anything she had confidence in beside her scholastic pursuits, it was her culinary skills. She puttered around the kitchen, waiting for the pasties to finish and washing up the dirty dishes. Frequently, she peeked out the window to make sure that her unexpected guest still lingered. He did. 

After the pasties came out of the oven, she wrapped some in a thick towel and brought them out to the stranger. “Trade you,” she said, smiling.

“Gladly,” he replied, handing her the empty bowl and accepting the warm bundle in exchange. He tucked it into a leather satchel at his hip. “That was delicious. It isn’t often I taste real home cooking. I’ll return your property tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps I can make the acquaintance of your…ah…husband then, Mrs. Adele.”

“Yes,” she said, eagerly. “Warner should be at home then.”

The tall man smiled, saluting her again. “Until the morrow, Mrs. Adele.”

Feeling as if a proper housewife should, Adele offered, “You could stay for supper, then, Mr. Hadrien. I’ll roast a chicken.”

HIs green eyes sparkling in amusement, the dark-haired man accepted her invitation.

Adele stood at the gate, holding the spoon and earthenware bowl. She watched him walk to the end of the gravel road. Just before he entered the forest, he turned to smile and wave. The young woman smiled and waved back. The man faded away into the dappled shadows of tall trees. It was then that Adele realized what had been troubling her about him.

Not only had he cast no shadow behind him, but his footfalls had made no sound at all.

Nightly Convention

“The innocent must be protected,” Sir Frederick said.

5 Turnings prior to the events in Wyldling Snare…

Night had fallen like a black curtain over the tall copse of ancient lilac bushes behind him. Although their branches were almost barren, the silent watcher could easily envision the gnarled and twisted boughs of ancient bushes – many grown as tall as trees over many Cycles – verdant with foliage and laden with purple blossoms as they were in the late springtime. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could imagine that he smelled their sharp fragrance in the autumn air. Unconsciously, his gloved fingers stroked the lilacs embroidered on his tabard.

Lilacs – the symbol of his order.

From his perch on his mount, the armored man gazed down into the rocky defile as if he was capable of seeing into its depths. His breath steamed in the chill autumn moonlight, but he was otherwise perfectly still – an equestrian statue.

The spell was shattered a moment later when his destrier snorted and backed away from the brink at a twitch of the reigns in the man’s hands. Chain mail jingled softly as he returned to the copse of ancient lilac bushes. Dead and dry leaves rattled as a breeze plucked them away from nearly denuded branches.

“What did you see, down there?” another man spoke from beneath the spreading limbs of a nearby oak, where he stood holding the bridle of his own horse. He had been the first to arrive at the copse over an hour ago. For the past ten minutes he had been watching the mounted man in perfect silence, expressionless as a toy soldier clad in lacquered scale armor over his silk garments. He wore a strangely shaped helm with a wide neck guard and a crest on the forehead piece that resembled moth antennae.

The mounted man showed no surprise; despite his preoccupation he had been aware of the other man’s presence for some time. He merely turned in the saddle to address his comrade. “Only darkness.” And then he spat on the ground in punctuation. “Wondered if you were ever going to speak up. How’s the bride, Nicolas?”

“She is well, I thank you.” Sir Nicolas inclined his head politely. “We are expecting a child during the Wolf Moon.”

“Congratulations!” The mounted man said. “May the Threefold One bless your growing family.” He grinned. “Didn’t waste any time, did you?”

“I thank you, Frederick.” Sir Nicolas bowed to his colleague. His wry smile was evident in his tone. “We saw no reason to wait.”

Hoofbeats interrupted their conversation. “Ah,” the mounted man said. “I reckon that’s Mordegaard.”

“The approach is from the South,” came his companion’s mild reply.

“Aye.” Sir Frederick chuckled as he removed his plain round helmet. “Commander Storm will not be coming, for he had more pressing concerns in the County of Mirrors. I will tell you more once the others arrive. And I suppose Clint will be late, as usual.”

“He does have the farthest to come, Frederick,” Sir Nicolas gently rebuked him. He took off his heavy helm and glanced up, past the branches of the ancient lilacs bushes clawing at the sky. “And the moon is not yet above us.”

Sir Frederick’s bearded face split into a grin. “At least we can be assured of a good smoke when he comes.”

Several more minutes brought with them the appearance of a tall, dark-skinned man astride a white stallion from around the bend. He wore lamellar leather armor reinforced with steel scales and a helm with a long feathery crest. A hooded raptor perched on the pommel of his saddle.

“Praise the Threefold One!” Sir Frederick dismounted to approach the new arrival. “Good to see you’re still among the living, Mordegaard.”

Sir Nicolas emerged from the gloom under the oak into the moonlight and bowed to the dark-skinned man. “Lord Yshua be with you, Mordegaard,” he said.

“Frederick. Nicolas.” Sir Mordegaard removed his crested helm and nodded to both of his comrades. “Salutations, my friends, and rich blessings from the Almighty Yshua. It is good to see you both, as well.”

His stallion was a young, spirited animal, and danced a few steps, whickering, as he pulled up on the reins. The hooded falcon shifted its talons but showed no signs of distress. The dark-skinned man patted the horse’s neck and then dismounted. He stroked the wing feathers of his bird, murmuring reassurances. It was then that they all detected the hoof-beats of a horse approaching from the west at a brisk trot.

Sir Mordegaard led his mount over to another tree on the edge of the lilac copse and loosely looped the reins around a branch. “Do not stray, Zebulun,” he murmured, placing a sword-callused hand upon its nose.

Just as the moon reached its zenith, the fourth man rode into the clearing ringed by lilac bushes on a coal-black destrier with a white blaze on his forehead. Although he was over average height and broad-shouldered, the man’s figure seemed slight when compared with his comrades, for he wore no armor other than a tough leather coat with fringes along the sleeves. His long dark hair was bound back in a queue – in the style of the Western Plains Skraeling folk – and he wore no helmet, only a wide-brimmed hat that would have concealed his face even in daylight. As it was, the moon revealed little of his features, but the three other men recognized him easily.

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“What ho, Clint!” Sir Frederick raised a hand in greeting, chain mail jingling

“What ho, Rick!” Sir Clinton called back. His voice sounded eager. “I see the three of you have beat me, as usual.” He raised the brim of his hat to reveal the cocky grin on his handsome, high cheek-boned features and then slid off his horse with the grace of one practically born in the saddle.

“As an apology,” he said, dark eyes twinkling, “I have brought smokeleaf.”

“Good man,” Sir Nicolas murmured, bowing to him. “You have rkindled the spirit of forgiveness in my breast.”

Sir Clinton laughed as he withdrew an oilskin sack from a saddlebag. The four men brought out their pipes and filled them with crushed dry leaves that the young man offered them. For several moments, they puffed away in companionable silence. Fragrant smoke wreathed their heads and rose into the star-spangled blackness above them. They all waited, Sir Clinton fidgeting, the others more patiently, watching the moon slowly trace its silvery path across the heavens.

Finally, Sir Frederick tapped the dottle out of the bowl of his pipe and crushed out the embers beneath his booted heel. He tucked his pipe into a belt pouch. The others followed suit. The older man sighed. Moonlight shimmered like hoarfrost on the numerous gray hairs on his head and in his short beard. “I suppose you all have heard the rumors by now,” he said, “so what I have to say will be no mystery to any of you. A week following the Resurrection Festival, scouts reported activity along the walls of Gan’golorum. Commander Storm, himself, has gone to investigate.”

“Ah.” Sir Mordegaard nodded his head in understanding. “That explains the Commander’s absence tonight. As the Nehmwights muster for war in the North,” he said, “Banditry is on the rise in the Southern Marches. The southern caravan route has become even more perilous for honest folk to travel. I suspect that the Human League is behind all the trouble.” He turned to Sir Nicolas, his eyebrows raised inquisitively.

“Assuredly, something foul is afoot in Rang Shadah,” was all the taciturn Sir Nicolas would contribute, his dark eyes a mystery. He waved a hand to indicate that he would elaborate later, and then turned to the young Baron-Knight of the Western Marches, who looked as though he would fly apart at the seams if he did not speak soon.

“Someone’s buying up all the mining rights in the Spine,” said Sir Clinton in a rush. “And the Pacifica manufactories have increased their production sevenfold.” The young man, barely out of his teens, contained his excitement like a tightly-coiled spring. He lowered his voice. “And with my own eyes I saw Koshmar.”

The other three men exchanged uneasy glances. “Are you sure, lad?” Sir Frederick inquired, placing one large hand on Sir Clinton’s shoulder. “One Nehmwight pretty much looks like another.”

The youth stiffened and his eyes flashed. “I would not have mentioned it, otherwise.”

“Peace, Sir Clinton,” rumbled Sir Mordegaard. “Continue, my brother. The hour grows later than we hoped, and that which we swore to protect may soon be in peril.”

“Too right on that count,” muttered the youngest of their Order. Irritably, he rolled his shoulders, stretching them under the taut leather vest. “I only saw him at a distance, but I heard the Third Consul of the Western Pact – Reese Devonian, that is, a fellow I’ve been suspicious of for a while – address him by name.”

“A thousand curses upon the head of Devonian,” Sir Nicolas whispered, his dark eyes fierce.

“And a thousand more upon the Nehmwight who subverted him,” Sir Mordegaard added. “Almighty preserve us!”

Sir Frederick, the most senior among them, chuckled humorlessly. “Go ahead and curse the bastards all you want, but it’s cold steel, rather than words, that’ll be the undoing of them.”

“That, or an arrow from the shadows,” Sir Clinton said, glancing at the strung bow and quiver hanging from his saddle horn.

“I doubt the Council would countenance assassination,” said Sir Mordegaard.

Sir Frederick smiled grimly. “The Commander would,” he said. “And it is to him that we report, not the Council.”

“The night grows old,” said Sir Nicolas, who had been watching the moon.

Swiftly, the young man told the rest of his tale, and the others added details to flesh out their own findings. It was no difficulty to perceive that all these disparate activities were interconnected. Grimly, the four men concluded that that which they guarded was in danger and the time had come to prepare for war. They discussed the possibility that the stirring of the enemy in all Four Quarters was a ruse to flush out the remnants of their Order and thus determine the whereabouts of that which they safeguarded. The uneasy consensus was that they report their findings to their commander and remain vigilant of any traps as they mustered troops for the inevitable conflict.

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Sir Nicolas, especially, was reluctant to commit to hostile actions. “It might be a ruse in a different manner,” he suggested, uncharacteristically verbose. “A means of utterly annihilating us and leaving our sacred charge naked to every threat.”

Sir Frederick clenched his bearded jaw. “Not on my watch.”

Sir Mordegaard’s dark eyes glittered. “It is clear, to me, what our next move must be to ensure the safety of our ward. We must each ensure that our successors are fully trained and prepared for investiture. We must await orders from Commander Storm to engage. Then, and only then, shall we carry the fight to our foes.”

Sir Clinton grinned ironically. “This from the man who claims that time is so short. But hey,” he said, doffing his wide-brimmed hat. His dark eyes shone with excitement in the moonlight. “Since we’re talking war, I reckon it’s high time I found me an apprentice!”

“No girls, Clint.” Sir Nicolas smiled. “Remember what Commander Storm said about that at the last Convocation.”

Sir Clinton’s mouth snapped shut, and his dusky cheeks darkened in a blush.

“Never mind, lad,” laughed Sir Frederick, slapping him on the back. “No matter who you choose, you’ll do old Sir Ferdinand proud.” He sobered. “May he rest in peace.”

“May he rest in peace,” intoned the other three. The young man found that he had a lump in his throat as he recalled his master, and hastily popped his hat back on his head so that the others did not see the moisture in his eyes.

“Now then,” Sir Frederick said, and cleared his throat. “According to tradition, during the full moon at the birth of each season, we have convened here in the place where our Order was founded  to share the news of our realms and to speak our oath anew.”

As the most senior knight of the Lilac Order, Sir Frederick knew his duty well. He stepped back and drew his broadsword, Borealis. Placing both hands upon the hilt, he held it with the blade pointing skyward, the flat of it touching his bowed head. His voice was calm and steady as he spoke, but his heart beat with paternal love behind his armored breastplate as he conjured the image of their ward into the view of his mind’s eye.

“I, Frederick jes Ursanovir, Baron of the Northern Marches and Knight of the Lilac Order, in the presence of my brothers, hereby reaffirm my vow to protect and serve the selDrayven clan with my every breath and beat of my heart until life has fled from me. Threefold One bear witness.”

One by one, the others mimicked him.

Sir Mordegaard LeMaurior was next, pressing the flat of his cutlass, Meridialis, against his bald pate. His voice shook with his fervent vow, but the hands of the finest swordsman in the Southern Marches were as steady as his devotion to their ward’s safety.

Sir Nicolas Terayama was calm, as usual, and his voice was firm as he spoke his dedication to the selDrayven family. The blade of Orientalis, his katana, flashed in the moonlight like quicksilver. Although he loved his young wife and their unborn child passionately, the Baron-Knight of the Eastern Marches knew that he was prepared to die in the defense of the one they all served.

Sir Clinton Rodriguez, the newly invested Baron-Knight of the Western Marches, removed his hat so that the narrow blade of his saber, Occidentalis, would not slice its brim as he solemnly swore his oath. Even though he had never personally met the one he was sworn to protect, the young Skraeling was no less dedicated to the cause than his elder companions.

After he fell silent, the four Baron-Knights, each standing at one of the cardinal arrows etched into the stones at their feet, raised their chosen blades until the points met at the center. They spoke in unison ancient words passed down from baron-knight to apprentice since the inception of the Lilac Order. Perhaps it was only the moonlight, flashing off of the metal of the blades as they flicked them up, but it seemed that sparks leaped from the tips of their weapons. There was no visual or audible signal, but after a moment, the four men simultaneously lowered their disparate blades, and then sheathed them in one fluid movement.

“Lord Yshua go with you, my brothers.” Sir Frederick locked eyes with each of his comrades in turn. “The innocent must be protected,” he said. Slamming their right fists against their chests, the others echoed his words.

Without speaking further, the grim-faced men turned away and retrieved their mounts. Within moments, they were riding off to opposite points of the compass. Although they were disparate in appearance and separated by vast distances, the four Baron-Knights were united by the same cold resolve burning within their hearts.

They dared not fail in their duty.

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