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Banestorm: Ruins


May, 2014

Bits of crumbling stone pattered softly to the ground. Merasiel shook her hand to remove the fine white dust that remained after she had brushed her fingers against the ruined wall. People once lived here, she thought to herself. Many people. And died, apparently. The thoughts brought little emotion, and her attention was easily diverted by a continuous drone of words.

“..appears to be Greek? Or Roman? Or Greco-roman? Looks just like ruins I’ve seen in pictures back on Earth. Did you know….”

Merasiel sighed and tuned Gestlin out again. All of the years she had lived had given her ample opportunity to see places that were once vibrant and alive be pillaged of their souls and left to stand as mere shells and a stark reminder of what was, and could be, lost to time. They ceased to interest her. Sometimes she wondered if she should be counted among those ruins. She brushed her fingertips gently against another section of wall and a faint cloud of powder puffed away into the air. More small bits of stone crumbled to the ground and lie still.

April, 2009

The only sounds to be heard in the Great Forest were those of night beasts and their unfortunate prey. Somewhere above, an owl sang from the darkness and Merasiel looked upwards into the canopy. The forest had always had a wild element to it, but this was different. It was too wild. Too untamed. Merasiel’s expression assumed its natural state: a frown. Mendelel and she had completed their service to the humans who had been responsible for breaking the spell that held them locked away inside Mortuturesihad. In gratitude for their freedom, the pair had agreed to forestall their return to Elven lands to aid the humans’ Lord Wallace in his Crusades. Somehow they had defeated the Vasar, driving them from the Huallapan lands. And now, Merasiel and Mendelel were free to resume the lives they had once led. Only, Merasiel had heard nothing of Estrelere during the crusades. The humans who served had never ventured into the Forest and knew nothing of her home. The elves who had joined the armies were all from Sylvilara, and if any of them knew anything, they remained silent. Merasiel’s frown deepened, threatening to become a scowl.

“Don’t look so sour! We’ll be home tomorrow.” Mendelel looked up from the campfire and Merasiel met his gaze. His face glowed red in the firelight and he smiled. “Home,” he repeated, then looked back to the fire he tended.

Merasiel’s frown softened, and then her lips curled upwards in a rare smile. “Yes, home. It will be good to see…everyone again.”

Mendelel stilled and his expression became guarded. “Merasiel, we were asleep for nearly a thousand years.”

“I know what you’re going to say.”

“No, hear me out. I know you hope he still lives. That he waited. But…” his courage seemed to falter as he looked up from the fire once more. Merasiel’s jaw was clenched and her expression dangerous. Mendelel look a deep breath and pushed on. “He would be well over a thousand years old. Anything could have happened.”

“Stop. I understand.” Merasiel looked as though she wanted to say more, but instead she drew her rough cloth blanket around her shoulders and settled down to sleep, ending the discussion. Sleep wouldn’t come, though, and her mind twisted alternatively with hope that she could resume the life she led before, and fear that she would never be able to do so. Time will have changed him. Time will have changed them all. How many of those I knew will still be there?

In the gray light of early dawn, the pair cleared their camp and shouldered their few remaining belongings. No words were spoken; Merasiel had not slept well and was in more of an ill temper than usual. Mendelel had become accustomed to his friend’s dour moods and wisely avoided discussion with her. As the morning drug on, Merasiel’s disquiet grew, and when they stopped for a midday meal, Mendelel appeared just as concerned.

“We should have seen a scout by now,” he said quietly as they packed up their belongings.

“I know.”

“Merasiel, I—“

“Quiet.” She held up a hand and listened. “What do you hear?”

Mendelel’s eyes scanned the tree line around them. “Birdsong. Little else.”

Above them, a raven cawed. “This is wrong.” Merasiel said, then picked up her backpack and took off into the forest at a brisk trot. It took Mendelel a few moments to catch up with her and they glided through the forest, their dread growing with each passing moment.

When Merasiel stopped suddenly, Mendelel nearly collided with her. He twisted awkwardly and fell to the ground, nearly smashing his head on a stone. Merasiel barely registered this, her attention completely focused on what lay before them.  An uneven, moss-covered stone road cut through the overgrown forest, visible in patches beneath fallen limbs and bushy undergrowth.  What did show of the roadway was even worse:  individual pieces of stone were missing or chipped, and the road had obviously fallen into disrepair many years ago.  Several yards away, only just visible in the thick of trees, stood a partially collapsed ruin that once was an archway marking the entrance into the Elven city of Estrelere.

Merasiel took a hesitant step forward, then another and another before breaking into a full run. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she distantly heard Mendelel shout a warning, but she would not stop. She ran along the broken road, jumping over tree roots that had encroached upon the stone, until her feet carried her into the city proper, or what remained of it. She turned in circles, her eyes shifting from one destroyed structure to another. The forest had long since reclaimed the once vibrant city. Full grown trees twisted around broken, collaped buildings, and thick brown vines twined their way to gaping rooftops and beyond. Where once there were statues, gardens and carvings, only crumbled stone and wild growth remained. Mendelel once again caught up to her as she fell to her knees, overcome by grief. Her face was hidden, masked by her hair and upturned hands, but she shook, and a single sob came from her bowed head. Mendelel sank to his knees next to her and lay a hand on her shoulder. They remained there for a time, the only comfort to be found in each other. The sound of Mendelel’s voice whispered softly from behind her. It shook with a great sadness and she lifted her hand to her shoulder and gripped his tightly.


“A Estrelere, gal-anor.
Gal ithil. Gal-gîl.
Mi dol-lui!
Liltha-ind iastil-min.
I gwaith cae-dinen.
Iosta ui.
Iosta-si mi-guir. *“



Mendelel’s voice faded and once more they were consumed by silence. Merasiel released his hand and stood, her expression stony behind the tracks of tears down her cheeks. Somewhere within, sorrow was devoured by rage, and the silence of the ruins was shattered by her inhuman howl of defiance against the fate that had claimed their home.


*Lament for Estrelere

O Estrelere, light of the sun.
Light of the moon and stars.
How brightly you shone
In a time of darkness!
Dance and song no longer grace your ways.
Your people lie silent.
Only grief remains.
You sleep evermore.
Sleep now in death.


2007, March. Hive Ri’Tal

The winter assault on the second major Hive had been a test of Merasiël’s patience. The colder weather had sent the Vasar into inactivity, so the few skirmishes that had been attempted had been repelled with little effort. Unfortunately, the Crusaders could likewise gain no ground against the massively fortified colony, and instead they settled into a long siege that went on for several months. As winter melted into spring, the crusaders finally gained an advantage in the form of reinforcements and supplies. The Huallapan people who had been freed so far found new hope and bravery in the form of the soldiers from Yrth, and rallied to join the cause to drive the Vasar from their home world. Merasiël was glad of this, but not for any altruistic reason. She grew tired of the wait and wished to complete her service to the humans so she could disappear back to her homeland with Mendelel. The addition of the Huallapan to their army gave Dane the resources he needed to finally wrench the Hive from the control of the Vasar. Instead of a costly full assault, however, they opted for stealth. Three parties were sent, led by Gabriel, Merasiël and Dane to the service and ventilation tunnels beneath the hive in search of the main gate, which remained ever closed to the main army.


Merasiël wiped her cheek with the back of her left hand once she had assured herself that the creature she fought was dead. Its eye had popped with an explosion of opaque yellow liquid when met by the point of her well-aimed dagger. She frowned deeply at the wet stains that now decorated her leather glove, but after nearly a year and a half of fighting the accursed Vasar, she no longer was disgusted by the insectoid remains that seemed to coat nearly everything she owned. She idly shook her hand, not really caring whether or not it dislodged the latest bit of scum. These creatures bled, just like orcs. It was good enough.

“What now?” Mendelel’s whisper drifted softly into her ear. She glanced over her shoulder at him and nodded once.

“We still have a gate to see open. We move.”

She lifted her hand and motioned to the remainder of the Elves that followed behind her. The bodies of the Vasar guards that had stumbled upon them were left where they fell, and Merasiël led the way deeper into the dark halls of the Vasar Hive, keeping whatever shadows she could find close at hand. The smooth, waxy walls were confusing to the senses. They all looked exactly the same, and many of them indeed circled back upon one another, leaving the raiders disoriented. It was Mendelel who saved them that day, using his dagger to carve symbols into the walls at each juncture they passed, marking the paths they took. Merasiël realized after the third time they encountered his hastily scribbled arrow, they would have been hopelessly lost inside the winding tunnels otherwise.

A few steps in front of her, Mendelel drew up short and crouched next to a corner. He held up his hand, motioning for silence, and as one, the Elves melted against whatever cover they could find. Merasiël found herself hidden beside him, and her ears soon picked up the noise he had heard, the sound of approaching stealthy footfall. Someone is trying to sneak up on us, she thought. How cute. She drew her dagger, and waited for the shape to draw nearly abreast of her hiding spot before launching herself from the shadows. Her intent was to kill, but she found nothing but steel as the shadowed figure parried her attack. She had only a moment to register this before the dagger was wrenched from her hand in a flourish of white, and the sound of soft laughter met her ears along with the clink of her dagger hitting the floor.

“Storm on the Mountain, my dear.”

Gabriel. Curse that man. Merasiël scowled as she knelt to retrieve her dagger from the ground. “What are you doing here?” she whispered harshly, as Dane and the few others who had made up the second and third parties came into view. “We were supposed to split up to ensure at least one group would make it to the gate!”

Gabriel had the decency to look somewhat chagrined. “These damned confusing halls,” he murmured in a low voice. “We’ve been going around in circles.”

Merasiel sheathed her knife with a snick. “Fool. I could have killed you you know.”

Gabriel gave her a long look. “No. No you couldn’t.”

She glowered at him, then pointed in the direction that he and the others had approached. “Back this way.”

“We just came from there…”

Merasiël stared at him. The scowl lifted slightly as her voice took on a hint of amusement. “You just admitted you were lost. Do you really wish to argue with me about this?”

Gabriel sighed in resignation.

“Exactly. This way.”hive_light

Despite their meandering path, they encountered no other guards other than dead ones that Gabriel and Dane’s group had dispatched. They quietly followed the string of Mendelel’s symbols, choosing different paths when the ones they were on circled back around on them, even backtracking a time or two as it became necessary. After an hour of walking, the light changed, growing brighter. Finally, Merasiël thought, We can be done with this place. Her hopes faded into another scowl, however, as they rounded a corner and they discovered not the main entrance to the Hive, but a brightly lit chamber instead. She realized with a start that the light was natural light; sunlight filtered through small, hexagon shaped holes high in the ceiling, leaving a hazy, honeycombed pattern on the floor. As their eyes adjusted from the dimness of the tunnels, they realized they weren’t alone. Dozens of haunted eyes stared back at them, the shafts of light casting an eerie glow over the gaunt faces of Huallapan who had been taken as slaves and put to work deep within the hive.

Great, more mouths to feed, she thought, as Gabriel approached the Halluapan, speaking haltingly in their language. At first, they seemed surprised by his speech, and some of them lifted their arms and extended skeletal fingers towards the warrior. A sharp warning from within the crowd brought them up short, and they all scuttled away to the opposite side of the chamber, whispering among themselves.

“What are they saying?” Mendelel nodded towards the prisoners.

“It’s hard to say; I’m not fluent in the language, but I think they think we are sent by the Vasar to trick them and kill them.” Gabriel once more spoke the Huallapan tongue, his words stumbling out slowly. The dissenting voice from earlier cut him off mid-sentence.

Merasiël scanned the crowd for the source of the voice, but all of the faces looked the same to her, and she eventually dismissed them. She didn’t need to understand the language to know what was being said. “These prisoners will be of no use to us,” she said sharply in Elvish. “We need to keep moving before the Northman decides to test his hammer against the main gate.”

As she turned to hunt for another tunnel out of the chamber, a wet thud and a sigh echoed from the tunnel they had come. One of the Elves that had remained there to keep watch was dangling from a Vasar spear that protruded from his chest, his already dead eyes staring at her in accusation. A crowd of Vasar guards emerged from the service tunnels behind the Vasar that had killed her kinsman.

“We are discovered! To arms!”


Merasiël’s dagger flashed in the beams of light as one of the Vasar charged towards her. It was too late for stealth; she would have to depend on her speed and cunning to survive this. She was dimly aware of the twang of bowstrings as arrows were loosed nearby. Mendelel and Dane, perhaps others were busy peppering the twisting black mass of insects with well-aimed arrows. And still the bugs continued to flow from the tunnel.

A deep breath. Wait for it….Now.

The Vasar’s strike was more swift than she expected. She sidestepped, but the blade caught the edge of her leather sleeve, and a red haze of pain crossed her vision. She shook it off and used her foe’s over-reach against it, burying her dagger to the hilt in an area of soft flesh on its torso. She felt the flow of bloody fluid around her fingers, and the insect toppled over. She was lucky this time, but how her arm burned.

Another guard closed in, and she backpedaled away from its fury, desperately dodging several wild swings. Within a few steps she caught a glimpse of white just over her shoulder and she found herself back-to-back with Gabriel. His voice carried to her ears from beyond the ringing of swords and cries of the wounded. “When I tell you, drop!”

A pause.


Merasiël fell to the ground as a sickening crunch sounded out above her. She glanced up to see that Gabriel’s foe had been wielding a rather nasty spear which was now impaled on the Vasar she had been fighting. Merasiël flipped herself around into a kneeling position and once again, buried her dagger in a chink between the chitin plates of the remaining guard. A long cut let loose a flow of ichor, and both foes lay on the ground.

Across the room, Mendelel called for help. He had been cornered by a pair of Vasar and was hard pressed to avoid their attacks. Merasiël sprinted across the room towards him, but never reached his side. A black shape reared up beside her and took a swipe at her leg, opening up her armor and a fresh haze of red overcame her vision. She fell to the ground, and her dagger flew from her grasp, skittering across the floor and out of sight.  She rolled over on her back, her head beginning to throb. A large insect loomed over her, its spear raised to impale her to the floor. Surprisingly, the creature never attacked. It merely shuddered once, and then fell over to the ground. Merasiël stared in bemusement as a much smaller figure came into focus.

Huallapan. He stood there, unarmored, barely clothed and certainly weak from malnourishment and extended captivity. But somewhere he had found the courage and strength to take one of the weapons of a fallen Vasar and fight. He offered a hand to pull her to her feet.


A few minutes later, Merasiël looked over the last Vasar corpse. It had been battered beyond recognition, and seemed to be most decidedly dead. Still…she stabbed the creature between the eyes, just to be sure. It didn’t even twitch. As she unbent her knees and stood to her full height, she took a moment to gather her wits. The fight had been particularly rough on them. Merasiël nursed a deep cut on her arm and leg where her foes had managed to pierce through her armor, and more than one of her kin lay gravely injured on the floor. Brother Mendel will be busy this night. She assisted where she could, but she did not linger over anyone longer than necessary. Nearby, Dane checked on his injured men, readying the ones that could move or be moved while the healers that had been brought tended to those who couldn’t.

She gradually became aware of Huallapan speech from across the room, and as she sought the source she noted that one by one, everyone else turned to observe. Gabriel stood a mere foot away from the prisoner who had taken up arms and slain one of the Vasar. The prisoner still held the blackened, barbed blade in his shaking hand as he stared downward at the blood of his enemy that pooled on the floor. Gabriel spoke quietly to him, and the man tore his eyes away from the pool of blood to meet Gabriel’s intent stare. What he saw there steeled something within, and the Huallapan nodded once, his knuckles turning white as he grippped the blade more tightly. He then slowly turned towards his fellow prisoners, lifted the bloody blade and he began to speak. The words came difficult at first, raw emotion robbing his voice of power. “Huallapan. Sung….Sungunaka. Sungunaka*!” As the words flowed from his tongue over and over, they gradually gained strength and others detached from the shadows, their voices joining him in his cry. Soon all of them were there, clamoring in unison. Gabriel grinned as he looked over his shoulder at Merasiël and Dane.

“Gather the wounded, and arm as many of the Halluapan as you can from the fallen. They will lead us to the gate.”


*Sungunaka – A twist on the Shona word “Sungunuka” – it can be translated as “The prisoner has been set free”

Wallace, Anno Domini MMVI  slapstick01

There was the thump of a dropped sack and a groan as a soldier took a seat on the rock.  “Good morrow, fool.  How do ye?”

Still crouched, Magnifico raised his head.  “Good morrow, Corporal.  You come to Wallace on an auspicious day.  Smoky and bloody, with a chance of screams tapering off until dawn, followed by a week of storms and ending in an eerie silence.”

No chuckle was forthcoming from the corporal, who merely nodded in acknowledgment of the grim jest.  “Not so bad, this fight.  They ran.  Not us.”

“And you look remarkably well for a man who has looked the Devil in the face, and all the fiends of Hell.  I will rest a while yet, and reflect once more on the wisdom of walking a battlefield.”

“Lord help us when a fool talks of wisdom,” said the man, not unkindly.  “You find any, share it with our commanders.  Maybe they use some on the bugs.”

“I’ll venture into the lords’ tents tonight as I did the night before: after they have numbered the dead, despaired, shouted their recriminations, pretended to forget these, sworn lifelong brotherhood again, then persuaded themselves anew that victory shall surely come tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.  Aye.”  A sigh like a dying breath.  “The Hammer saw you dance on the wall today, and he laughed.  You had the town-folk singing, even as they died.  He wished me to find you and ensure you lived, or if you were among the dead, he’d light you a pyre.  Said I would know for certain if your lips still moved.  He calls for you to come and drink his mead.”

Magnifico smiled.  “An honor.  It seems that I did not disgrace myself this day in disgracing myself.  But the Northmen make mead from honey, and to acquire honey means wrestling the bear.  A hero’s drink!  Victory in every gulp!  No, wine will suit me well enough, for which I’ll stalk, kill and skin the fiercest grape, laughing the while like the Hammer.  Yet I’ll come, to sing and to paint the day’s deeds larger than perhaps is merited by strict accounting, and to pretend that tomorrow will never arrive.”

“The Hammer did good service.  He didn’t kill more’n you can count, maybe, but far more’n he can.”

With a cackle, Magnifico said, “The finer reckoning!  You wrong him, Corporal, and his enumeration of the dead.  Master Rainald knows well enough that in this war, one is always followed by another one.  Counting beyond two is for generals and widows.”

“Afore you try to talk sense to them generals, lift a mug of it at our fire, fool.”  The corporal rose, and stretched.

“Go before me.  I and my breast must debate a while.”  The thought came unbidden: but Doctor, I am Paglicacci.

The corporal shrugged, shouldered his burden and trudged up the hill to rejoin the men from the north.

Wallace, Anno Domini MMVI  slapstick00

Two teamsters, bloodied and covered in soot from the bombards, carried the limp body of the jester into the tent.  “We got ‘im, Brother.  He was askin’ fer you, ‘n’ babblin’ some, but ‘e’s gone quiet.”

“Bless you for your efforts,” murmured Mendel, squinting in the lamplight to make out the nature of the fool’s injuries.  The child in the other bed moaned and tried once more to turn over.

“Poor li’l guy got broke up somethin’ bad…but guess he kinda started out that way,” added the other, shouldering Magnifico’s full weight to lay him gently on the cot.  “Take good care o’ him, Brother.  ‘E’s got balls, fer sure, beggin’ yer pardon, Brother.”

With a practiced eye, Mendel inspected and began to clean the gaping wound where the Vasar spear had penetrated his friend’s side.  “Who would have guessed that the Bugs could sail a ship?  That was clever of them, but Sir Dane tells me you pushed them right into the river.”

“Aye, that we did,” said the taller of the two, grinning.  “Master Clown here gave us the ol’ one-two, heave-ho, singin’ while they chopped at ‘im, ‘n’ into the drink they went!  You shoulda seen it.”

“I’ll have to be content with cleaning up after it,” said the monk absently.  “The spear came out cleanly, praise be.  Leave us.”  Folding his hands, he began to pray after the Gospel:

“Alioquin propter opera ipsa credite amen amen dico vobis qui credit in me opera quae ego facio et ipse faciet et maiora horum faciet quia ego ad Patrem vado, et quodcumque petieritis in nomine meo hoc faciam ut glorificetur Pater in Filio.”

The fool’s eyes snapped open, and his lips formed the Savior’s name.

“What in Our Lord’s descent into Hell were you doing out there, my son?” said Mendel, pushing at the entrance wound now, willing the flesh to knit.

“I believe, Brother, that it is called the Hambone.  A syncopated–oof!–five-accented rhythm in a 4/4 signature, accompanied by the judicious shaking of what the less reputable of poets might call my moneymaker.”

“Don’t make me administer Extreme Unction on your skull, Magnifico!  I mean, what did you hope to accomplish with such a stunt?”  Mendel kept talking to distract his patient while the aqua vitae went into the wound.

“Not fade away, Brother,” said Magnifico through clenched teeth.

“Well, your tradesfolk saved the district from being overrun.  You were ventilated for your trouble,” the monk said crossly as he dabbed away the wasted liquor.  “Do not pass out yet.”

“Rudie can’t…fail,” gasped the clown cryptically, tuning paler even than his smeared greasepaint.  “Let no one say that I failed to accomplish diddley.  Brother!” he exclaimed, grasping for Mendel’s shoulder.  “I…I want.”  His eyelids fluttered.

“What?  Let the spell work.  What is it you want?”

“Candy,” came the clown’s reply as his eyes closed and his breathing became regular.

Brother Mendel rolled his eyes, crossed himself, and laid a hand on the forehead of his sleeping friend.  “Benedicamus Domino.”

Though it had been already cured thanks to Gestin’s magery, the smell of the beast’s poison was still rank in Gabriel’s nose. He could not help but to scratch the rapidly fading scar on his cheek. It itched fiercely – was that a side effect of the magical healing or something he was simply imagining? – but he thrust it away and gave the dead beast another look. The head of a lion, a goat and an asp? Gabriel shook his own head in disgust and glanced around.

Rainald was muttering darkly under his breath – he had been late to the fight for some reason, though Gabriel knew not why – and Radskyrta was standing off to one side, visibly elated over having survived yet another fight. As was so often the case, Dane was silent as he watched their surroundings, but Gestlin more than made up for that with his incessant rambling about everything and nothing simultaneously. At the moment, the strange wizard was attending Merasiël – so, she too had been bitten; Gabriel gave her a quick once-over to ensure she was otherwise uninjured … apart from her pride, of course, before letting his eyes continue their transit. Mendel and Magnifico were discussing the other dead creature even as the clown’s two dragons tore it apart. Gabriel watched the large beasts for a heartbeat longer before looking away once more.

And still, the stench of poison would not go away. It was so very like…


Twenty Years Ago

His blood was still hot, his temper frayed, but Gabriel swallowed the rage and struggled to find control.

Four of the would-be murderers were already dead – two others had fled when the fight turned poorly for them, but Gabriel recognized their faces and knew where they would run to – but a fifth was on the floor, moaning over the stump that had once been his sword hand. He was too deeply in shock to flee, but still, Gabriel did not turn his back to him, not even as he knelt before the dying man twisting and turning on the filthy cot.

The murderers had struck without warning, smashing through the doors of the hovel Gabriel shared with his father and attacking with a ferocity that was unexpected. Here, in this tiny little hut, tucked in the slums of this miserable town, it had been harsh, bloody knife work, though Father had drawn the family blade near the end, after they had felled two of the slayers. That had not been enough. One man had managed to penetrate Father’s defenses with a lucky strike.

And the poison on that murderer’s blade had almost instantly dropped him.

“Gabriel.” Father’s voice was harsh, tortured, strained. His muscles twitched and spasmed. Ligaments groaned at the strain. Father was weeping tears of blood even as crimson poured from his nose and ears. Gabriel tightened his hold on the family blade, casting a sharp, fierce glare at the prisoner, before leaning closer to his father. “Need you to be strong,” Claudius Auditore hissed through clenched teeth. “Remember promise.” At that, Gabriel nodded tightly, even though he had no intentions of obeying it. A year ago, when they first came to this place, this miserable, stinking town where they could keep their heads down, his father forced him to swear he would seek no vengeance against the Megalan houses who had been behind the death of their family. Father groaned again – he clearly tried to say more, but the pain was too great – and Gabriel inhaled deeply. He fought for control, clawed for the Void where he could feed his every emotion.

“I will be strong, Father,” he murmured as he set aside the family sword. He drew his long knife, trying hard to not shake. This poison was known to him, after all. The Widow’s Kiss, it was called, and if the victim was not hurried on to the Afterlife, they would linger in unspeakable agony for days, sometimes even weeks on end. This miserable town barely had a church worthy of the name and the priest who ran it was a lazy drunk who could barely craft a passable sermon, let alone heal deadly poison.

“Do. It.” Father rasped. Gabriel hesitated.

And then, he pushed the blade home.

Long moments later, after the light had gone out of his father’s eyes, Gabriel forced himself to his feet. He turned to face the cowering man on the floor. The would-be murderer’s gaze instantly locked onto the bloody knife in Gabriel’s hand and he paled even further.

“You and I are going to have a discussion,” Gabriel said coolly. “This will not be over quickly,” he continued, smiling at how the man tried to press himself back even further against the hovel wall. “You will not enjoy this. But I will know the truth of who sent you here and why.” Words began tumbling from the man’s lips, names and places and amounts, and Gabriel listened quietly, intently, until the confession faltered. “Not enough,” he said darkly, gesturing toward the still form of his father. “Not enough by half.”

He set fire to the hovel when he departed, burning his father’s corpse in a manner the northern barbarians would approve of, with the bodies of Claudius’ slain arrayed around him. The blaze spread quickly, consuming the small house and quickly spreading to the other homes here in the slums of this Caithness town. It pained him to do this – the fire endangered hundreds of innocents, but there had been seven or eight such blazes this particularly dry summer, so everyone was well prepared for another – but he needed the cover it provided to escape undetected. Enraged grief thumped through him, but he clung to the last tatters of his self-control. There would be time to mourn later, when he was not in this damned city that stunk of horses and shit, when he was not hunting the fools who should not have accepted this contract.

His father’s sword was at his side and three of the poisoned dirks were safely secured in protective scabbards designed for this sort of thing. He intended to return these weapons to their proper owners, blade-first, and then…

And then, he would turn to Megalos. There were men and women there who needed killing.

Behind him, alarm bells began to ring.


Standing on the deck of the Gleaming Endeavour, his hands gripping the railing tightly, Gabriel stared at the Templar who had bared his head and revealed his identity. Shock had rooted him in place, had stolen every bit of his strength, and he stared at the boy … no. He was a man now.

And he stood with the enemy.

Fury chased the surprise, overwhelmed it, seared it into nothing. Gabriel tightened his hold on the ship’s rails, aware that Dane and Mendel were both quizzing him, having recognized the figure on the beach as well. How was this possible? How was Auqui still alive?



Four Years Ago

On the first day of summer, atop the crumbling ruins of a long abandoned fortress that dominated a lonely stretch of beach, Gabriel Auditore faced his lost student.

The day was glorious – wind that smelled of rain caressed his face while gulls circled overhead, intent on the many fish that danced in the bay, and the feel of the warm sun just now peeking over the distant mountains that dominated the far horizon was pleasant – and Gabriel inhaled the soothing scents. This interminable hunt had dragged on for so very long that he no longer knew quite where he was anymore; this abandoned keep could be Megalan, or might have paid homage to the masters of al-Wazif, or perhaps even belonged to Cardiel. None of that mattered, though. The hunt was finally over.

He did not have long to wait. Auqui, wearing leathers rough with wear, approached slowly, each step deliberately placed upon the decaying stone walkway that loomed over the beach many yards below. The facial scar Gabriel had given him an eternity ago had healed nicely – one could only see if one knew it was there – and the boy moved with an easy grace hinting at lethality. Seeing the hint of facial hair was jarring and a solemn reminder that the Huallapan was no longer a boy. He wore no armor and carried only a long, thin rapier at his side. Gabriel turned to face him and bent his head formally.


“Gabriel.” The lack of an honorific stung, but Gabriel thrust it away, buried it under a layer of icy control. “You should not have come here.” Auqui’s faint accent was barely noticeable, but the cold anger in his eyes could not be hidden.

“I sought a reckoning,” Gabriel replied softly. He met the boy … no. Not a boy. He met the young man’s eyes. “Did you kill her?” he asked. There was no need to identify Kira, not by name, not to Auqui.

“No,” Auqui said simply before frowning. “But I made no effort to stop those that did from murdering her.” Rage swelled and Gabriel swallowed it, concentrated on control. His emotions vanished into the void. “She learned of my master’s plans and had to be dealt with.”

“Your master.” This time, it was Gabriel’s voice that could have cracked ice and the fleeting half-smile Auqui gave him was mocking. “Is he here?” Gabriel asked, his eyes flicking to the crumbling ruins. “I would greatly like to greet him as he deserves.”

“He is not.” Again, Auqui offered that mocking smile. “His business is elsewhere.”

“So. There is only us.”

“As it should be.” The boy dropped his hand upon the sheathed weapon at his side. “Will you do me the honor of discarding your armor?”

“You stood aside and let those men torture and murder her,” Gabriel replied tightly. “I owe you nothing.”

“Then let us be done with this, Master,” Auqui snarled, his blade whispering free. He glided forward, too aggressive by half as always, but Gabriel was waiting, his father’s sword glinting in the sun. The Kingfisher Circles the Pond met Courtier Taps His Fan. Back and forth they danced, the sharp shriek of metal against metal echoing through the air. Watered Silk batted aside The Falling Leaf. Stones crumbled underfoot as the ancient bridge shivered and trembled under their weight. Gabriel fought the instinctive urge to use The Mongoose Takes a Viper – how often had Auqui seen him use it? – and Two Hares Leaping met Striking the Spark.

Gabriel’s footing faltered slightly upon the rocks and Auqui pounced. Kissing the Adder sparked off the elven corselet and the boy grunted with frustration before throwing himself into a diving roll as Gabriel nearly took his head with The Heron Spreads Its Wings. His apprentice was back on his feet by the time Gabriel had recovered his footing and they circled once.

No words were offered.

Auqui came in low – The Kingfisher Takes a Silverback – and Gabriel caught the attack with Branch in the Storm, redirecting his onetime student’s longer blade away before countering with Black Pebbles on Snow. Blood flew as the Auditore family blade scored a glancing cut and Auqui snarled at the pain. He came on strong once more – The Dove Takes Flight followed by a very rapid Lightning of Three Prongs – but Gabriel flowed away from the assault, springing up and over the onslaught. Rocks fell free as he pushed off of the side, smashing into fragments on the beach below. He landed lightly and instantly retaliated with The Wolf Lunges. It was a rare form, one that he’d used only a handful of times, and the hilt punch caught Auqui completely by surprise. Blood streaming from his nose, the boy barely managed to evade the follow-up overhand strike.

Again, they circled.

Gabriel could see the doubt beginning to creep into his former student’s eyes. They had exchanged a dozen blows and already, Auqui was bleeding from multiple wounds. Neither were particularly life-threatening, but the fact that Gabriel had avoided using any of the more advanced techniques was something that could not be ignored. That, better than anything else, betrayed the depth of his anger at his student. This was meant to be humiliation and Gabriel noted the very instant comprehension sank in.

He gave Auqui no time to rest and came in fast – Threading the Needle, another simple strike taught to students very early – and then batted aside a surprisingly sloppy Parting the Silk. Anger trembled on the edge of the void, but Gabriel pushed it aside. River of Light very nearly took Auqui’s arm and, as the boy met it with Kingfisher Circles the Pond, Gabriel let slip his fury.

And then, he really attacked.

Back Auqui fell, offense abandoned in the face of Gabriel’s determined onslaught, but it was not enough. Snow in High Wind gave the boy another bloody stripe across the chest and Bundling Straw badly injured his left arm. Their blades clashed once more and in Auqui’s eyes, Gabriel could see fear. It should have given him pause, should have stayed his hand or urged him to mercy.

It did not.

Mongoose Takes a Viper came faster than it ever had before and he felt the sudden, all-too familiar shiver of his father’s sword sinking through flesh. Auqui gasped.

Requiescat in pace,” Gabriel murmured as the boy staggered back, his own weapon sliding out of her nerveless fingers and clattering to the stone. Stepping back, he let Auqui stagger back, dark blood staining the boy’s jerkin and pants. The stone masonry shivered once more and Gabriel had just enough time to throw himself back before the entire section Auqui stood upon collapsed.

Without a sound, the boy vanished from sight, tumbling down among the falling stone.

A quartet of arrows striking the stone masonry around him was Gabriel’s first warning that Auqui had lied about being alone and he grimaced at the sight of the archers now manning the ruined battlements of the fortress. There were only a handful, but he had seen how much damage even a single well-trained bowman could do, especially as there was no way for him to reach them! He risked a quick glance over the side – Auqui wasn’t moving and was at least partially trapped by stone debris; a fall from this height would likely not kill, but with the bridgework collapsing around him? – before kneeling quickly to retrieve his onetime student’s fallen rapier. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it spinning toward the nearby ocean as he backed away, eyes flicking between the archers and the unmoving form below. The wise option was to retreat. Arrows continued to rain down around him but he was clearly out of their effective range at the moment. Descending to give his betrayer the Widow’s Kiss would give them a chance to drop him. And there was still at least one other man who needed to die. He looked once more at the unmoving body below him. Yes, Gabriel decided. Auqui was dead.

Requiescat in pace,” he repeated before turning away.

He never looked back.

The enraged sea buffeted the Gleaming Endeavor as the storm surged on overhead.  Merasiël wrapped her legs around the cracking mast, blinking away the rain as Angrist cut through the jammed ropes holding the sails in place.  Somewhere below, Gabriel floundered in the sea after being thrown overboard.  She could only trust that Rainald would pull the swordsman back to safety.  Triumph turned to fear as the newly freed sails fell towards one of the stouthearted seamen that served aboard the vessel.  The sails caught Tully square in the chest before severing the seamen’s safety line.  A large spray of water blew over the side of the ship where he had fallen and then he was gone.

Merasiël barely registered that her own safety line had been compromised, and dove for Tully’s rapidly disappearing line.

Merasiël dove for the shadows behind one of the plush chairs near the window. As light from the hallway filled the room, she shrank further away from it, forcing herself into stillness. The door closed, and the bright light from the sconces in the hall was replaced by the dim flicker of candlelight.

“My Lord Tereus, we will find her.” Edward? She thought. “But my father threatened her yesterday. She has likely fled.”

“For both our sakes, I hope you do find her. She is the only loose end that remains to be tied. What were you thinking, goading your father like that? Announcing your intentions to marry that elf.”

A pause. “I don’t particularly care for the tone you are using, Tereus.”

“Are you having second thoughts, then? Perhaps you should have entertained those before your father’s untimely demise.”

What is going on here?  His father is dead?  The floorboards just on the other side of Merasiël’s hiding place creaked and she held her breath. The cushioned fabric beside her head hissed gently as someone slumped down in the chair. When Edward broke the long silence, his voice was close to her ear. “No. No second thoughts, Tereus. My father deserved his fate. I will find the Lady Misthal and see that she remains…silent.”

“Good. You have been given the gift of your father’s wealth and power, young Edward, and are the last that holds the Bonet name. It would be a shame if your family’s line were to be cut prematurely.”

The conversation ended with the sound of footfall followed by the door slamming closed. Merasiël waited still, her breath caught in her throat. The fabric beside her head whispered softly once more as Edward rose and walked to the window. Merasiël then had her first clear view of him, and she believed that if someone were to look like hell, as the humans were want to say, then Edward would fit that description. His normally clean and pressed clothing was stained in several places. His collar was undone and the hairs on the top of his head were sticking out at an odd angle. He gazed out the front window for a long while, scowling downward towards the front drive, until the unmistakable sound of a litter leaving drifted up to the window. “Ah, what a bloody mess,” he grumbled, and then turned away from the window. His eyes met Merasiël’s and both of them froze.

It was Edward who broke the silence. “I should have expected you’d find your way here.”

Merasiël rose from her hiding place behind the chair, one hand resting on the hilt of her dagger and the other resting on the back of the chair beside her. “Your father is dead.”

Edward sat on the edge of the desk and ran both of his hands over his face. His voice dripped with exhaustion. “Yes. Not by my own hand, of course, but I was there.” He glanced over one shoulder, eyes scanning the disturbed pages on the desk. “I see you have been busy. You will know by now what my father was involved in.”

“Slave trade.”

“Yes, a disgusting business, and one I wished my family out of. But it goes further than that.” He looked up at her, and he tilted his head, his expression becoming one of genuine confusion. “Are those my trousers you are wearing?”

Merasiël ignored him. “Your father’s business?” she prompted.

“Children as slaves. Noble born, peasantry, it didn’t matter. The younger the better, sold to the highest bidder by a rival’s family or simply taken from the streets and never heard from again. Those few who discovered were silenced before they could bring it to the notice of the church. I had to stop it.”

“Tereus was working with you.” Edward’s simply nodded, and Merasiël continued to press him, “Tereus hired me to steal your father’s secrets. All the while he had your ear? Why?”

Edward folded his hands together and rested his chin on his knuckles and his shoulders slumped forward. “I am sorry, my lady, I truly am. You know that Elves aren’t very welcome here. You were here to be a convenient scapegoat. Now that my father is dead, you will be accused for his murder.”

Merasiël took a step towards the window, and Edward rose hurriedly.

“Wait. Please. Lord Tereus arranged all of this. He would ensure my father’s downfall, and I would ensure your permanent silence. But I find..I cannot. I will not.”

Merasiël’s knuckles were white from gripping the handle of her dagger, and slowly began to draw the weapon. She spoke through gritted teeth. “Oh? And why not?

“Because I have fallen in love with you.” When Merasiël’s only response was to stare at him, he continued, his voice bordering on desperation, “Please. Tell me truthfully. Was none of this real? All of this time we have been together? Was every moment false?”

Merasiël snapped her dagger back into its sheath, a small smirk finally playing its way across her lips. “What do you think?”

Edward studied her expression, looking for some sort of hope, but he apparently found none and he took a steadying breath. “I see. Then the Lady Misthal is dead. Or perhaps never existed.” He leaned forward against the desk, resting his knuckles on the wooden surface. “I’m afraid you will not be able to stay in Hyrnan. I will instruct the guards that you are to not be hindered and you may leave the grounds with all you came with. But,” he added, ”I ask of you a boon.”

Merasiël rested a hand on one of the windowpanes. “And what is that?”

“I give you your life and freedom in opposition to Tereus’ demands. As you heard before, he is not above ending my family’s line if he doesn’t get what he wants, and I have a distinct interest in staying alive. In exchange for allowing you to live, you will ensure that the Bonet line is not threatened by him further. Agreed?”

Merasiël nodded. “This will conclude our business, then.” She then turned back towards the window.

“And for God’s sake, don’t climb out the window. Use the door?”


Three days later, the sun dawned bright with the promise of a warm, late summer day. The manor bustled with preparations for the late Lord Bonet’s funeral. The transition to the new master of the house was going well, however this morning, the new Lord Bonet was notably absent, remaining locked in his study.

“M’lord Edward?” The voice of Bruce, his father’s Steward, called from the other side of the locked door. Gentle raps became more insistent, and then turned into a cacophony of fists hammering against the wooden surface.

Edward snored from where he had fallen asleep in his desk chair the night before. Eventually the noise woke him, and he lifted his head. He blinked in the dim light that filtered from behind the partially closed drapes, then flew out of the chair, sending several pieces of paper flying in the air. Edward looked out the window, noting with some chagrin the position of the sun and then ran for the door. When he opened it, Bruce stood there, fist raised to continue pounding against the door.

Edward straightened his jacket and stood a bit straighter, fully aware of how distressed he must look. “Bruce? What is it, man?”

“Beg pardon, Lord Edward, but it’s half past ten and there’s a bit of news from town.”

“News? What sort of news?”

Bruce stepped off to the side, allowing one of the servants to pass through with a tray of food. Edward’s stomach rumbled, and he followed breakfast to the desk, motioning for the other man to enter. Once Edward had seated himself and begun to eat, the old Steward cleared his throat and continued. “Seems there was an accident over at M’lord Tereus’ manor during the night, sir. A fire, sir.”

Edward froze, fork lifted halfway from the plate to his mouth. “A fire, you say?”Manor_on_fire

“Yes M’lord! Terrible one. Sad to say that Lord Tereus was caught sleepin’ in it and has passed on, God rest his soul.”

Edward lowered the fork, his appetite suddenly gone. It’s done then. Am I so different from my father now? Lives can continue or come to an abrupt end at my word.  And yet, the end result is worth it, is it not?

“Something wrong with the eggs, sir? Cook’ll be fit to be tied if the girls brought ‘em to you cold.”

“Eggs? What? Oh, no no. They’re delicious. I’m just…at a loss for words over the news.” Edward forced himself to pick the fork up and eat.

“Quite right, sir.”

Edward paused again, and looked at Bruce. “He had a daughter, correct?”

“Oh yes sir, lovely young lady she is. Lady Katherine. About fifteen as I recall. Oddly enough, she must have been stricken by a fit of sleepwalking for they found her outside the house wrapped in a blanket and lying in a pile of hay. She claims someone carried her out in the night, but the guards believe she’s just upset because of her father. Shook her up quite good, but if you ask me…” he continued to prattle, but Edward’s thoughts turned elsewhere.

Oh, my Lady of the Great Forest, you do have a heart buried in there. Thank you.

“…oor thing has no family here and she’s not betroth—”

Edward interrupted the continued drone of the steward’s voice. “Bruce.”

“Ah…yes, M’lord?”

“Please see to it that proper condolences are sent to the Lady Katherine.”

“Of course, M’lord.”

“No family and no betrothed you say? Well then, I suppose the Church will see that she’s taken care of. But…we could offer her a place here, in the meantime of course. We have plenty of room. See that it’s done.”

“Very good, M’lord.”


Merasiël glanced upwards as the popping and crackling of her campfire echoed loud in her ears. It had been more than a week since the downfall of Lord Tereus, and no pursuit had come from Hyrnan. Still, she glanced around, wary of trouble. When none came, she looked back down at the paper she had secreted away.

Lord Tirius Evern

She did not know where they all were, but she would find them, one way or the other.

Lord Marcus and his Lady Kiriste

Each name’s accusation, branded on paper, involved in slave trade. She had seen enough damning evidence. She proclaimed them guilty.

Lord Malus Drogan, Lord and Lady Fenwick

Some were involved more than others, but in this, Merasiël could not be choosy. They would all eventually fall, just as Lord Claudius Bonet had. Merasiël committed each name to memory, then tossed the paper in the fire and watched the last turn to ash.

Lord Proximo.


So much for the element of surprise.bloody_dagger

Merasiël ducked around one of the compound guards, tumbling past his sword to seek the cover of a nearby column. She paused once there, remaining just out of view of the templar and his bowman. The horrible events from outside the manor a few minutes ago had been a painful reminder that the shadows, not the open battlefields, were her home. It was easy to forget this when fighting beside Rainald and Gabriel. The pair simply waded into the fray, comfortable in the knowledge of their own skill, or at least, the skill of Mendel to get them back on their feet should things go badly. She didn’t remain where she was for long; her target would soon reload his crossbow and she needed to remove him from play before another feathered bolt struck down another of her companions.

A quick sprint to the safety of another column left her within attacking distance and still out of view. She slipped from the shadows and stepped behind the bowman, placed her blade on his jugular and sliced neatly across. While the cut was not deep enough to kill, her distraction proved a success; no more bolts would fire from his crossbow this night.

As the battle raged on, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Gabriel had forced the Templar to retreat to a position that was close, leaving his unarmored head within her reach. It would be so easy, she thought, but dare I risk turning my back to my other enemy? When a brief vision of her unconscious form lying on the floor bleeding out passed before her eyes, she buried the thought deep within and turned away from the injured crossbowman. Two steps found her on the Templar’s back, bracing one foot on his hip, her opposite knee in the small of his back and grasping his shoulder with her left hand. Blade met bone with a sickening crunch as she buried Angrist to the hilt in the back of his skull.

As the Templar fell to the ground, Angrist slid out easily, and words floated to her ears through the red haze of battle.

“Marry me.”

It took a moment for them to register, and she simply stared at the man in white that now faced her, blood and brain matter decorating the stone floor beside her feet. Is he…serious? Did he really just ask me to marry him in the middle of an enemy compound after I opened a hole in someone’s skull? Sounds of the continuing battle going on around her threatened to capture her attention, and she masked her confusion within a scowl and curt answer before turning away.


Gabriel’s grin in response to her rejection did little to ease her mind.

“Lady Misthal, you enchant me. Thank you.”beckinsdale2

Merasiël smiled as Edward lifted one of her hands to his lips, brushing her knuckles with a kiss. “Whatever for?”

“For coming to my rescue, of course! All of the insufferable noblemen, their wives, their,” Edward grimaced, “daughters. This feast is supposed to be a joyous occasion…celebrating my glorious return from Megalos. But I must confess, I did not feel like celebrating. Not until I met you.” He paused for a moment, staring at Merasiël’s reflection in the rippling water of the fountain beside them. “Stay with me.”

“Lord Edward?”

“Stay. Please. Call it the magic of the Elves, call it an impulsive boyish fantasy, but you truly have placed a spell on me. We’ll have a room prepared, and before you answer, I must tell you that will not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Merasiël lifted a hand, gently caressing his jawline, “So sudden…”

“I will beg if I must.”

“Yes. I will stay with you.”

Edward’s enthusiastic grin in response to her affirmation did little to ease her mind.

Hyrnan, August 2013 ce, Estate of Lord Bonet

Two months.

Two long, painful, boring months of idleness had been spent playing the part of the “Lady Misthal from the Great Forest” and Merasiël’s already miniscule amount of patience was nearly gone. For his part, Lord Tereus had been correct in his belief that insinuating herself into the comings and goings of the household would be easy. Lord Edward had been sent away to court at a young age, and while he was there he developed quite a fascination for elves. Merasiël had but to appear at the feast celebrating his return that evening with her ears on display and the young Lord had been hers. She had been welcomed into the household that night, and subsequently his arms within the week. From there, gathering information about Edward’s father had proved to be more difficult than she expected. Edward was…persistent with his attentions and she had very little time alone. If Edward himself had known anything of his father’s dealings, he kept silent on the matter. She had gathered what information she could and waited for further instructions.

She occasionally received word from Tereus, usually in the form of cleverly coded messages hidden within deliveries. Merasiël had responded to each; delivering what information she had learned since the last contact on the comings and goings of the elder Lord Bonet as well as some of his allies, but Tereus was still not satisfied. Lord Bonet kept his darkest secrets close.

Until the day that the elder Lord announced a visit to the Megalan capital. And, Merasiël was happy to hear, the younger Lord Edward would be joining him.

“Lady Misthal, Lord Bonet has summoned you.”

Merasiël thanked the servant and adjusted her dress, expecting to once again spend the morning listening to Edward tell tales of court and recite horrible Megalan poetry. To her surprise, when she arrived at Edward’s suite, it was the Elder Lord Bonet waiting for her, and not Edward.

“Lord Bonet, this is a surprise. I hadn’t—”

“Enough,” he cut her off mid-sentence. “I know what you are up to.”

Merasiël swallowed. He couldn’t know, she thought. I’ve been too careful. Too conservative. “I don’t understand, milord.”

“He speaks of you near constantly to me, telling me the most fantastic tales. A strange, beautiful, wandering elf, from a destroyed homeland far to the west. One who happens to appear in my home the very day my son returns and bewitches him. He announced his intentions at breakfast this morning to propose to you.” His voice hardened, the lines on his face deepening along with his scowl. “I had heard news that elves had near taken over Harkwood and were insinuating themselves into noble bloodlines there, but I hadn’t expected their reach to go this far.”

“Milord, I swear to you, I had—”

“ENOUGH!” he bellowed. “Not here. Not in my home. And not in my city. Your…kind is responsible for that abominable Blackwood. And I will not have your kind ruining Hyrnan as well!” He pointed a finger in her direction. “Now, I leave on a ship bound for Megalos on the morrow. Edward will be going with me and when we return, he will have a proper wife. I want you gone from my household within the week. Do you understand?”

Merasiël buried her smirk of satisfaction behind a deep curtsey and forced her voice to be as trite as she could possibly manage. “Yes, Lord Bonet.” The door slammed after her as she was escorted from the room, but she barely heard it. Her mind was already a-whirl with plans.

Edward hadn’t been allowed to speak to her of course. As the litter creaked its way down the drive early the next morning, Merasiël risked one brief glance out the window, but thankfully the morning fog prevented any view of the occupants. She half expected him to come running back to the manor like a madman, professing his love, but as the morning drew on, the road remained silent and Merasiël remained alone. The staff, under instruction from Lord Bonet, had abandoned her and she was forced to make do for herself for the day, dressing herself and getting her own food from the kitchen. She preferred it, as she did not like their constant attentiveness and it left her with plenty of time to think. She knew that the elder Lord Bonet kept at least one guard outside his personal offices at all times. But Merasiël had her own way of getting places, and she had long since found her way to the roof.

As day turned to night, the house grew gradually more still as the last of the staff finished their chores and retired. With Lord Bonet away, some tried to stay up a bit later than usual, and voices and laughter drifted up from the windows of the servants’ quarters long after the rest of the household had gone to sleep. Nonetheless, there was still work to be done the next day and one by one, they all quietened down. When Merasiël was sure the only ones awake would be the guard, she crept to the window and opened it. She had abandoned her dress this night, donning a pair of dark trousers and shirt she had stolen from the laundry when no one was looking. They were a bit baggy, and she had secured them as best she could with her belt. She slid her sheathed dagger on the belt almost as an afterthought. If all went well, violence would not be necessary. Pity.

The two months she had spent learning her way around the manor paid off. She scrambled to the roof, dislodging only a leaf or two of ivy in the process. She held her breath as one leaf drifted close to one of the guards, but he either did not notice, or chose to ignore it. Once on the roof, she paused to catch her breath. She was weakened after two months of living a life of idleness, and every muscle in her arms was complaining about the exertion. She gritted her teeth and pushed through the pain and grasped hold of the ivy on the opposite side of the house, this time to descend to the windows of Lord Bonet’s third floor study.

The window was unlocked. Merasiël frowned as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. This isn’t right, she thought. As worried as he is about his secrecy, this window should be locked. Taking extra care to be quiet, she ignored the voice in her head telling her to leave and stepped into the dark room. Enough starlight filtered in from the windows that she could make out the locations of the furniture, and she she crept to the desk, and began her search. While she could see, the darkness caused her some difficulty in actually making out the details of what she was looking at, but she dared not light a candle.

Wait, she thought, squinting in the low light. Here it is. She tilted the paper so that the starlight aided her vision. Yes. Every single one of them is named. What do these numbers mean out to the side? She was so intent upon her study that she missed the sound of footfall approaching in the hall. The only warning she had was the shuffle of booted feet as the guard came to attention and the click of the lock turning.

To be concluded in part III…

With a loud clash of metal, Rainald met the guard’s attack with his own shield and held. There were two of them, armed only with what could be donned rapidly and still with sleep crusting their eyes, plus the Templar and the crossbowman. Merasiël was already in the great room, having tumbled past one of the soldiers, but Gabriel’s attention was on the Templar. He was holding his weapon aloft, lips moving in what could have been a prayer but was more likely as spell. Gabriel grinned wolfishly – this was just like fighting the Vasar all over again.

Well … almost.


Eight Years Ago

The hills were black with bugs.

They flooded down toward the vanguard from both sides of the mountain pass, their great legs eating up vast distances in great chunks. War horns – human, elven, dwarven, Huallapan – sounded as the crusaders fell back into practiced formations. Already, flags were flashing as the commander of this host – Sir Dane Sardock – issued rapid commands and instructions for placement. The slap of bowstrings echoed around them and hundreds of charging Vasar stumbled as arrows slammed home. Enough of the creatures fell that their surprise assault was blunted just long enough for the last of the crusaders to fall into place.

To Gabriel, the noise of the battlefield was of little importance. He focused on control, mentally envisioning a flame as he fed all of his emotions into it. Around him, the soldiers of the infantry formation he was ostensibly in command of shifted anxiously, muttering and grumbling with poorly concealed fear. More than a few glanced in his direction – he was, Gabriel had to admit, the least armored of them, though to a man, they had witnessed his lethality in battle – and he let their gazes wash over him without visible reaction. Here, in this place, in this moment, none of that mattered. Inhale control. Exhale emotion.

“Hold!” the serjeant bellowed, his words resulting in the soldiers firming up their shield wall. In all matters, he was the true leader of this company, not Gabriel, and no one thought otherwise. The Vasar drew closer …

Boom. The bugs smashed into the braced pikes and spears with a teeth-rattling crash. Blood and ichor flew as the creatures struggled to overwhelm them. Men screamed. Metal clashed against chitin. The screams of wounded and dying warriors, human and not, filled the air like a shrill cacophony.

And still, Gabriel stood, unmoved, unreacting, unyielding. His eyes flickered over the Vasar’s numbers. Where? This many could not be controlled easily. So where? There!

He sprang forward, using the bent back of a soldier kneeling to reload his crossbow as a springboard to hurdle up over the shield wall. Cries of surprise rang out behind him as he landed in the middle of the Vasar formation, rolled forward and then darted up. He twisted around one of the bugs, spun around another, and kept running. A moment later, he reached his target.

The Alpha shrieked and hissed in surprise as Gabriel attacked. He opened with Arc of the Moon and the bug threw itself back, narrowly evading his decapitating strike, and then tried to retaliate with its glaive. Gabriel caught the surprisingly light weapon thrust with his rapier, expertly redirecting it into the dirt. With the bug momentarily out of position, he flowed into a favored strike. The Mongoose Takes a Viper put the creature even further out of place and his rapid follow-up thrust punched through the armored chitin. Again, the Alpha shrieked, though this time it was in pain, and the Vasar it was psychically connected to visibly trembled. Even as the bug staggered back, Gabriel struck again with Snow in High Wind – ichor flew as the Alpha dropped to its knees. It had just enough time to look up at him before The Thistledown Floats on the Whirlwind took its head.

Instantly, chaos erupted amongst the Vasar attacking his unit. Some went insane with fury, attacking anything, including their allies, within range. Others simply froze in place and stared stupidly at the crusaders who were killing them. Yet others simply continued on with what they were already doing, in some cases utterly ignoring their now insane brothers stabbing at them from behind.

It was … glorious.

“Push now!” the serjeant roared. Spears and pikes and swords flashed. Gabriel eyed the results, nodded, and flowed forward, his sword dancing. Stones Falling Down the Mountain became The Tower of Morning. The Leopard’s Caress crippled the leg of a bug, opening it up for Kissing the Adder. The Falling Leaf caught a glaive attack, and he slid easily into Watered Silk, leaving behind another twitching corpse. “Well done, my lord!” the serjeant exclaimed as Gabriel almost leisurely flowed from Lightning of Three Prongs to Low Wind Rising. The soldiers advanced another step, allowing him to step back behind their shields. He glanced to the west where Rainald was assigned and smiled – the North-Hammer was in the midst of the battle, laying about with that ridiculous hammer of his, but it seemed he too had opted to target an Alpha at the first opportunity. On the other side of the northman, the unsmiling elf woman, Merasiël, was attached to another formation, but they were too distant for Gabriel to see.

He shook his head, pushing the random thoughts out of his mind, and went back to work. There was killing to be done.

“You dance the forms well,” a dark-haired stranger said later that evening. The camp was in a jubilant mood – the Vasar ambush had cracked like a nut thanks to expert placement, and the thunderous approach of the Royalist detachment led by that mountain of a man, Malfoy, had sent them scattering. There had been casualties, of course, but they were few compared to what could have been and the field was littered with slain bugs. Even better was the sheer number of local Huallapans present who had witnessed the decisive victory. They chattered with awe and excitement, many already pleading to join the army.

“Not well enough,” Gabriel admitted with a scowl. His arm still stung from where a Vasar glaive had eluded his defenses and scored a cut. Mendel had given it a look and then ordered it wrapped, but was too busy with the truly wounded to waste his magical skills upon such a tiny scratch. Rainald had mocked its very existence – loudly – and then tried to convince everyone within hearing distance (and some beyond) that he could have held the bugs himself.

“So say we all,” the stranger said with a smile. He was wearing the arms of a Megalos footman, but bore a single-edged long-blade that curved slightly instead of the usual broadsword so prevalent in this army. The man stood with both hands clasped at the small of his back, but at a simple glance, Gabriel knew he was in the presence of a true blademaster. It was in the man’s posture, the easy, poised way he stood, or perhaps the cool composure in his eyes. Likely a combination of them all. “Who trained you?” the man asked.

“My father,” Gabriel replied. “He never formally tested for dragon-mark and died before he could finish my training.”

“By what I saw, Friend,” the dark-haired man said, “you have seen to that yourself.” He unclasped his hands and offered one. “I am Gaius, late of Quartedec.” The gauntlets upon his arms bore the unmistakable sigil of a dragon-marked master of the sword and the tattoo upon the back of his ungloved hands.sparkled in the sun.

“Gabriel, late of Wallace.” He clasped the man’s hand. “You are far from Quartedec, Master Gaius,” he added.

“I was traveling through Caithness when this expedition was assembled.” The master flashed a smile. “What sort of swordsman would I be if I made no efforts to join it?” His eyes flickered with amusement the moment he saw Auqui practicing nearby. The dark-haired half-elf girl who had somehow attached herself to them both- Kira, Gabriel thought she was named – was there as well, watching with those laughing eyes of hers. “You have students,” Master Gaius said with something undefinable in his voice.

“The boy lost his father some years back,” Gabriel replied slowly. He frowned – Auqui was being sloppy with the forms again; he would never be as good as he wanted if he didn’t learn to focus! – and continued carefully. “Instructing him … he and I feel into this arrangement by circumstance, not intention.” Master Gaius nodded. “The girl … she has asked to learn the blade but I have not answered.” Girl. Was it accurate to call her thus? She was half-elf and could easily be twice his age.

“Still,” the dragon-marked master said, “your name is well known within the camp. The men of Caithness accord you the respect of a blademaster.” Gabriel dipped his head slightly in simple acknowledgement of this fact.

“Kill enough of them and even Caithnessers will take note,” he replied wryly, earning a short bark of laughter from the blademaster before him. “I was about to have dinner,” Gabriel added. “Would you join me?” The dark-haired man shook his head.

“Alas,” Gaius said, “I have other duties to attend.” He drew his weapon in single, fluid move, falling into a ready stance even before the blade was out. For his part, Gabriel had already spun away, his own weapon whispering free of its scabbard. “Let us see if you are worthy of the acclaim I hear,” the dragon-marked man said. He flowed forward.

And they began to dance.

Never in his life had Gabriel been this hard-pressed, not even when he’d first touched a sword and his father began to instruct him. The Kingfisher Circles the Pond narrowly batted aside Courtier Taps His Fan. Master Gaius was faster than anyone he’d ever faced, even those damnable dark elves, and the whole world constricted to this single moment. Twisting the Wind met Kissing the Adder. Sounds fell away, leaving only the void. Ribbon in the Air nearly disemboweled him, but Watered Silk almost took Master Gaius’ left eye. They circled.

“You dance the forms exceptionally well,” the older man said. “I had my doubts with that shorter blade …”

He attacked even before he was finished speaking – Lightning of Three Prongs – but Gabriel was retreating, slipping sideways to counter with The Mongoose Takes a Viper. It slid past Master Gaius’ defenses and would have struck home had the blademaster not twisted away desperately at the last instant. Again, they circled.

“What is this madness?” someone who sounded a great deal like Wallace bellowed. Gabriel gave Master Gaius a questioning look and the older man nodded slightly. Together, they stepped back from each other, lowering their blades in smooth, practiced motions that almost mirrored one another, and finally bowed slightly.

“A test, Your Grace,” Gaius said. He sheathed his sword. “I wished to see the talents of your young knight firsthand.”

“By trying to kill him?” Wallace was glowering, though most of the warriors around him looked either bored or annoyed that he’d broken the contest up. Rainald was definitely irritated and stood in a ring of men that Gabriel knew to all be inveterate gamblers. Money had not yet changed hands and now seemed unlikely to do so.

“Without challenge,” Master Gaius said simply, “one cannot test their limits.” He bowed his head quickly, first to Wallace and then to Gabriel. “Another time, young blademaster,” he said with another smile before gliding away with an easy grace that hinted at lethality.

“Many apologies, my lord,” Gabriel said, directing his words to Wallace and successfully pulling the man’s attention away from the departing Gaius. Departing from a man of his rank without seeking his permission could be considered as something of an insult – the fact that Gaius chose to use the arrogant saunter that was Cat Crosses the Courtyard indicated it was obviously intended as such – but Gabriel did not want Wallace to act without thinking. Again. There was already enough trouble with the royalists, especially if the rumors about the lord and that Simonton merchant girl had any basis in truth; they didn’t need to create even more trouble with the much needed Megalan mercenaries. “I will see that this does not happen again.”

“Damned fools,” Wallace muttered as he stomped off. He was flanked by Dane who offered only an amused shake of his head, and a moment later, Gabriel stumbled back a step when Rainald stabbed a meaty finger into his chest.

“I lose much silvers on you,” the burly northman grumbled. Gabriel blinked.

“We did not finish our duel,” he said.

“Five moves and dead,” Rainald retorted, gesturing sharply with one hand that held up four fingers. “Less probably, then with the dancing off and stealing more of my deads.” He glared halfheartedly and Gabriel frowned, mentally translating the big man’s words into something understandable.

“Your deads,” he repeated. “Your kills?”

“Yes, this. You know I mean this. Next time, making better, lítillbróðir.” He walked away, bellowing for someone to break out the ale in that ground-rattling voice of his. Or perhaps he was asking for the privy. With his accent, sometimes it was difficult to tell.

The feel of eyes upon him drew his attention and Gabriel almost winced at the too-bright gaze of Auqui. As before, the boy was staring at him with stars in his eyes, so desperate for glory that he refused to look at the hard work still ahead. Try as he might, Gabriel still had not instilled in the lad the understanding of what it truly meant to be a blademaster. The constant work, the fanatical devotion to the Art, none of that sank in. All Auqui saw was the end result and he wanted it now.

“Snow in High Wind!” he snapped, suddenly cross. To his credit, Auqui responded quickly enough and with adequate grace so as to not entirely look the fool, but Gabriel scowled as if disappointed. “Arc of the Moon!” he ordered as he drew closer, his critical eye noting the weaknesses in his student’s form. The young woman, Kira, drew her own weapon and followed Auqui’s lead – she had a natural grace and speed that the boy needed to work for, but her inexperience with the stances resulted in sloppy forms – and Gabriel blew out another frustrated breath. “Terrible,” he muttered, including both of them. “One quarter speed,” he said as he assumed the ready stance himself, nodding when they did the same. “Cutting the Wind,” he instructed as he flowed into the proper stance.

There was a lot of work to do.

It was strangely enjoyable working alongside someone else.

Gabriel ghosted through the shadows outside the Order compound, three or four steps ahead of an equally silent Merasiël. This would require knife-work in the dark and there was no one in this band of theirs he trusted more for that. Rainald and Dane were fine in open combat, and the casters invaluable at so many other times, but here? Now? He much preferred the company and skills of someone who understood the meaning of stealth.

They reached the wall without incident and Merasiël gave him a questioning look that he answered with a sharp nod. Being the taller of the two, Gabriel laced his fingers together and half-crouched. A moment later, Merasiël was there, her foot in his hands, and he heaved up. She scrambled over the wall with barely a sound, and Gabriel followed, using as a springboard one of the many wooden stands normally populated by vendors during the day. He touched down in the shadows of the stable a heartbeat later, noting without surprise that Merasiël had already drawn Angrist. Seeing someone else carry the weapon that had belonged to him for nigh on a decade was … odd but necessary given her lack of supplies. Besides, it did not mean anything. It was merely a temporary loan. Yes, she was attractive and of elven ancestry and they shared more similarities than not, but that didn’t mean … he wasn’t …

Oh. Oh, dammit. Not again. He shook his head in slight disgust and focused on the mission ahead of them. There would be time to evaluate this later. He wanted to scowl. Well, at least he had not humiliated himself in front of her as he had when he first met Miratáriel so very long ago…


Twelve Years Ago

He was being watched.

His first instinct was to reach for his father’s blade, but Gabriel shoved the reflex aside and continued his slow plod forward. By his admittedly muddled reckoning, Harkwood was close and with these ridiculous Caithnessers still trying to murder one another in this senseless rebellion, it stood to reason that the small city would have scouts deployed, especially if the rumors were true about the new elven defenders augmenting the guard. If he was honest with himself, that was one of the reasons he’d decided to strike out for Harkwood following that catastrophe at Blythe – in his four and twenty years, he’d only seen an elf in passing or at a distance and curiosity, ever his bane, set his feet upon this path. Abruptly, Gabriel scowled. It was not as if he had anything else to do at the moment.

The feel of being watched never waned as he continued along the well-trod path that should have been a road but most certainly could not be considered such a thing even by the most liberal of definitions, though Gabriel was too busy trying to keep from grimacing with each step he took. His entire body ached, but it was the poorly healing wound in his side that concerned him the most. He had taken it during the mad retreat from Blythe, when the townsfolk fled screaming before the reptilian onslaught and the few men capable (or willing) to stand in defense of their homes broke before the attack. Few were as lucky as he – Fat Tom, his employer, was dead as was every other member of the merchant’s guards – and for that he was thankful. He simply wished the pain would stop.

Did Saurians poison their blades, he wondered as he continued his slow walk? Or even clean them? Filth from poorly cleaned blades could kill a man as quickly as steel. He had done what he could after escaping the battle, but the ragged gash was hot and inflamed. God, but it hurt. He needed a healer. How many days had it been since Blythe? How long since he saw Fat Tom swallow a yard of steel and die screaming? How much time since he escaped those maddened lizards, descending upon his lamed horse to devour it like starving beasts? All of the days blurred together now – he remembered the many fleeing refugees, scattering in all directions, and the screams of the dead and the dying, and the smell of death and blood and shit.

Wait. He smelled blood now. His reflexes, dulled by exhaustion and pain, finally began to rouse and he started to reach for his father’s sword.

“I would recommend against that, warrior,” a melodic voice instructed him. Seeming to materialize out of the very woods themselves was a distinctly feminine form, though he could not see her face, not with that dark hood covering her head and the sun so low in the sky. She carried a bow of exquisite craftsmanship and at a glance, Gabriel could not but to admire her visible grace. It was as if she floated across the earth instead of walked. Never before had he seen anyone move that well, not even his late father who was as close to a blademaster as any man could be without bearing the dragons. He shook the thought away and tried to focus through the haze of fog in his head.

“I’m heading toward Harkwood,” he said through a thick tongue. His head was swimming and he was so hot, which made no sense. Spring was only just beginning and he had not pushed himself that hard today.

“Then you are walking in the wrong direction,” the woman said. She nodded back the way he came. “Harkwood is that way and nigh on two nights travel.” Gabriel frowned, glancing back. Had his fever so dulled his wits that he missed a turn? Where did this trail lead? “You are injured,” the woman said as she glided toward him. This close, he could make out her face – she had strong features, with cool, hazel eyes that studied him with a calculating gaze. There was something distinctly non-human about her appraisal of him. She was an elf, he realized.

“A scratch,” he murmured in response. “Pay it no mind.”

“Scratches do not stink of infection, warrior,” the elf said wryly. ”Come. The day dwindles. I have a camp nearby. We shall attend your wound and upon the morrow, I shall take you to Harkwood.” She turned away, as if his obedience was a fait accompli, and after a long moment of consideration, Gabriel followed. If he truly was lost as it would seem, then having a local escort was a very good idea. Damned Caithnessers. Why could they not place signs or markers as Megalos did?

They passed the source of the blood he smelled on their way to her camp – it was a trio of dead orcs, each with twin arrows standing out of their chests. Their throats had also been slit and, by the look of one of the three, they had died hard. Gabriel paused briefly, examining them with open curiosity, and the woman gave him a look.

“You act as if you have never seen the dead before,” she said in a light voice.

“Not dead orcs,” Gabriel replied. “Men, yes, and Saurians as well, but I’ve had few dealings with orcs.”

“Then I envy you,” she said. There was a volume of grim history in her voice and Gabriel wondered who she had lost. “Come,” she ordered sharply.

Her camp was expertly concealed and located in a very defensible location just within an immense but mostly hollowed-out tree. There was only the one bedroll and the impression he immediately got was one of order. The ring of stones surrounding the small fire formed an almost perfect circle, the three small pots were arranged from smallest to largest, even the bedroll was tight and square in terms of placement. Gabriel took this in, noting how the woman unstrung her bow, then placed it in the very center of her blanket, going so far as to nudge adjust it slightly though he could not for the life of him see what she changed.

“Saurian,” the elf woman said as he was fighting against a sudden urge to just sit down for a week or five. “You said Saurians.” She pushed her hood back, revealing hair the color of ripe wheat. “You come from Blythe, do not?” Gabriel nodded as he eased his own travel pack to the dirt, grimacing as his muscles pulled at the fire at his side. He noticed her frown but it did not register for absurdly long moments. His head began to pound and his vision swam. Did he have any water left? He was suddenly unbearably thirsty.

“I was there when it fell,” he muttered. “I am Gabriel.”

“Of Megalos, by your accent,” the elf mused. “My name is Miratáriel.” She added something else, something liquid and long and impossible for him to repeat, let alone comprehend, and Gabriel blinked again. Was that her entire name? Merciful God, that had to be hard to say fast. He paused, opened his mouth to reply and, without thinking, offered her his hand, intending to thank her for her hospitality.

That, as it turned out, was a mistake.

The movement pulled at the wound in his side and what had been a small fire erupted like an inferno. He felt something tear – likely his poor attempts to stitch together the injury – and the sudden, unexpected pain drove him to his knees with a gasp. A cool hand touched his forehead and he heard Miratáriel speak from a hundred leagues away.

“You’re burning up!” she said and Gabriel tried very, very hard to smile.

And instead, he threw up on her boots.