Thunder roared over the land in late summer. Wind whipped the sea to a frenzy, giving voice to its discontent and lending power to its eternal battle with the land that was its jailer. Gray curtains of rain slashed across the face of Castle Palomares, obscuring the angular crenellations of its mighty walls. Sentries, positioned along the ramparts and barbican, shivered beneath their sopping cloaks and wiped rain from eyes, ordinarily sharp, now dimmed by the deluge.
Sir Fallon De Gothia, Trisagion knight of the Brotherhood of the Rose and the Order of the Third Circle, was a man accustomed to storm and turmoil, for his vocation was one of death. He drew rein on a knoll a quarter league from the castle and patted Erebusís neck, one of his two warhorses. Erebus was black as midnight, and Eos gray, the color of first light.
Rumor whispered that he was the cast off son of a cardinal, but rumor was a vaporous vamp and a trickster that offered nothing beyond the titters it accorded the highborn. Fear and respect belonged to him in abundance, but only so much as he purchased with the edge of his blade, a Trisagion sword forged to slay the marked.
Beneath the soaked hood of his mantle, dark eyes inspected the stronghold, piercing and exceptional for their depth rather than color. Ebony hair wisped against his lean cheek in a damp strand ending at the corner of a mouth that suggested a life of hardship. He was well formed, tall, lithe, and possessed of a graceful carriage that earned him admiring glances from both genders. Thin lips, a straight nose and a pale complexion bestowed him with an exceptional masculine beauty. Upon the black silk of the surcoat overlaying his linked mesh their insignia was embroidered, a red rose encircled with a wreath. Upon his left shoulder, a red triangle ranked him as Trisagion, elite member of the Brotherhood of the Rose to which he was forever bound.
To the east, his glance took in hills smoothed by their nemesis of constant wind. Flattened grass, weighted with heavy rainfall, lay like vanquished soldiers across the battlefield of the elements. Mighty oaks bent, their leaves stripped from limbs, many of which were broken like the jagged bones of a lionís kill.
To his right and beside him, his letter bearer, Eben Payne, and the bearerís apprentice, Gideon Moreland, sat with cloaks flowing along the flanks of their horses, drenched to the skin. Some called them angels, others gave a less favorable account. Fallon called one of them friend, though the friendship was as fragile as fine glass. Gideon was young and also pleasantly created, owner of a compassionate heart. He was fired with the enthusiasm of his station, in possession of intelligent eyes and delicate brows that accented a seamless forehead. A former cleric, his character lacked for nothing, but his prudence was, at times, thin as fog, his wisdom as that of an innocent, though his dedication burned as hot and constant as the sun. Experience would forge a fine man of him.
Had the watchmen along the castle ramparts failed to recognize their true identity, they might have shot them all from the backs of their horses the moment they rode within range, though it would have done them little good. Eben carried a letter of destiny, a missive thought to be of great value. The ciphers were an honor to receive. Eben Payne was a bearer and a man bound by blood to his calling, which, in turn, meant that he could not die. At least, not until his last letter was delivered.
Fallon looked forward to it with much anticipation.
Gideon offered no complaint about the conditions, but not so Eben.
"íTis cold," Eben said, his rotund body shivering in the rain. His eyes were rather small for the face they occupied and his cheeks were round and florid.
"And early," Fallon answered. They had ridden a good part of the night, a frequent occurrence, for to delay a letter invited danger.
Behind them rode Tarin, a fair-haired lad of ten years, who attended them and their horses. He carried their standard, now hanging limp in the rain, the precious silk that guaranteed them safe passage through numerous realms. Or should. "Will we be sheltering for the rest of the day?" he asked, his voice rich with longing.
"We shall see," Fallon answered. All four were wet, cold and hungry. He touched Erebus with a silver spur, one of a pair conferred at his entry into the knighthood.
Together they rode for the castle gate, while the wind drove rain slanting into their faces without mercy.
"According to rumor, Leuther is here," Gideon said.
"Perhaps he is," Fallon answered. He attached no significance to it yet, although a drop of bitterness burned inside.
Above them, sentries manned the breastwork slung between the gate towers. Fallon haled them. "We are upon the business of the Order of the Third Circle and seek the Lord Palomares. Raise the gate."
A streak of lightning rent the heavens, flashed bright across the land. The portcullis rose in its track with a rumble that matched the thunder.
In the courtyard, stable boys rushed to take their horses. Fallon swung down from the back of his tired charger and handed over his reins.
"See that theyíre well fed," Fallon said to Tarin, his tone deep and filled with natural authority.
"I will, sir," answered Tarin, and took charge of their mounts. He flung orders about him as though he were a lord himself, drawing a hint of a smile to Fallonís expression.
Gideon leaned back and massaged sore muscles in his back. Fallon thought him better suited for the clergy, but it was not his decision to make.
Eben snapped his fingers. "You," he called to a lad. "I have need of assistance."
The lad obeyed, came to him. "Sir?"
"Get us out of this wretched weather. What? Is this house refusing courtesy to a letter bearer?"
The bewildered lad shook his head. "I know not, sir."
Fallon watched with disgust. Eben, a man born to a fine family, was spoiled and took not his calling to heart.
Fallon loosened his sword in its scabbard, a blade imbued with the power to kill a bearer, the only weapon that could. Around them, wagons sat idle against towering stone walls, shiny from the rain. Mud rimed their boots to the ankle. Fires sizzled in the deluge, and cooks scurried to secure their midday meals. Masons, drapiers, laundresses, smithies, warriors and servants attended their tasks across the courtyard, cloaks pulled tightly about them. Smoke, dung and the smell of roasting meat spoke familiarity to Fallon. No sign of danger. Nothing beyond the ordinary. But a chill voice whispered at his ear and kissed his neck with cold lips, an unfriendly warning, though he took it not as a sign. Not yet.
A tall knight met them. He wore the insignia of rank, his surcoat of blue and gold, the colors of the house of Palomares, his weaponry of the finest caliber. He offered a brief nod to Fallon, then bowed his head and addressed Eben. "íTis an honor, sir. My Lord Palomares awaits you."
"Thank you," Eben answered, a man who thought only of himself, a man who was weak in character. "But can you not see that we have need of sustenance and shelter first? Tell my Lord Palomares we shall call upon him once we have rested from our journey."
"We shall call upon him immediately," Fallon said to the knight, and received a scathing glance from Eben.
Eben whipped the oilskin pouch from beneath his mantle and shoved it into Gideonís hand. "Let my apprentice make delivery then. I shall be requiring a fire and dry clothing."
Fallon yearned to beat him bloody, but his station prevented that fetching desire from achieving its aim. "He isnít yet sealed."
"It is a simple delivery." Eben tugged the Lachesis ring from his finger, the object upon which the thread of life depended, a forbidden act, and offered it to Gideon. "If it pleases this Trisagion, take it."
Fallon pushed his hand away. "He isnít sealed, Eben. Return the ring to your finger. Youíre forbidden to remove it." The ring lengthened life, but for those without the seal, it also provoked madness, a thing Eben knew well. While they could not be killed, they could be hurt, sometimes severely.
Gideon stepped forward. He answered with confidence, but his tone betrayed the tension openly displayed in his face. "We shall call upon the Lord Palomares immediately, God willing," he said to the knight.
"Indeed, sir. Please come with me."
"I forbid it," Fallon said. "This is beyond your calling, and you are unprotected."
Gideon patted the oilskin pouch. "I have you, Fallon, and we shall be rid of the missives shortly."
Not soon enough, in Fallonís opinion. He silently damned Eben. Letters were to be delivered promptly. This was dangerous work, and, without ring, Gideon was unprotected. Castle Palomares was hostile to many, though it would be folly to offend a bearer and his Trisagion. Rumor claimed the Palomares were in league with the Fythian, and Fallon found it easy to believe. But then, he knew the Fythian.
Fallon nodded, choosing what he hoped was the best path--he had not the authority to force Eben to his duty, but they must complete the letter delivery.
He and Gideon followed the knight inside, passed from the rain through an arched doorway, along a narrow, dimly lit passage and into a great room of some magnificence. A high fire burned in the hearth and colorful tapestries robbed stone walls of their sullen gray. Ponderous furniture dotted the space, artfully placed upon richly woven carpets of deep blue and gold. Lancet windows reached toward the high, vaulted ceiling, and intricately carved columns grew from the stone floor, crowned with Corinthian capitals, foliated with grape clusters and vines. A stairway curved upward from the far wall and on the landing, close to the rail, Leuther watched their movement with a keen eye.
Fallon paused, though not enough to draw attention, and returned Leutherís heated glance.
Vexation and anger mingled in Fallon. Though he was master of Gideonís life, he was not master of Gideonís will, and therefore was restrained from using his blade against Gideonís brother.