The campfires burned a deep red in the darkness, hundreds and hundreds of them glowing like the fierce eyes of dragons, and it was the dragon lord who camped outside the city walls of Alecon, waiting silently in the darkness to strike. Cobus would burn Perceval’s castle to the ground, but for now, he was waiting patiently across the darkened field, the eyes ever watchful and vigilant.
Caelen stood along the battlements staring out at the black field spotted with fire, the smell of woodsmoke strong on a brisk wind. In the dim light, he could see the dragon banner rippling above the tents. A few years had passed since the assassination of Lolek, and in that time, Cobus had managed to seize the majority of the Aricin kingdom away from Perceval, and now Perceval, like his dead brother, clung to life, grasping and choking inside his fortress of stone.
Death awaited everyone inside Alecon. In time, Cobus would storm the walls and they would die, or he would starve them and they would die, but either way, the end was the same.
Death has no master.
Caelen hoped Cobus would come, hoped he would lead his men across the field, and that was why Caelen stayed in Alecon. He could have left. He could have followed his lord back east to Cenlis, but he was needed here. Caelen touched his sword’s pommel, a piece of iron fashioned in the shape of a wolf, and he thought of his father and brothers. He was needed in Alecon.
A man called to him from the courtyard below. “The king wishes to see you.”
Perceval was forever referring to himself as king. A baseless title for a defeated man. By blood he was a duke, the brother of a once great king and nothing more. Lolek had an heir, who by blood was the true king, but he had been taken south into the country of wine, and many doubted he still lived. He was a sickly child who had escaped the clutches of death on more than one occasion.
“Tell him I’m coming,” Caelen called back to the man.
Caelen climbed down from the wallwalk and crossed the courtyard to the tower keep. He ascended a wooden staircase to the second floor of the tower and pushed open the double doors. Inside, the hall was empty except for Duke Perceval sitting on the opposite side of the room, his head bent as if in prayer.
He should be praying. We should all be praying.
Caelen crossed in front of the fire pit, the logs crackling and sputtering smoke upward into the rafters. Perceval did not look up from the sword laying across his knees, a sword of finely tempered steel, crimson and golden in the firelight. It was a magnificent blade, and the colors swirled and danced in its frame. It was the blade that had nearly won him his kingship.
Caelen’s boots crunched the rushes as he walked across the hall, and Perceval looked up. The duke coughed.
“Talfor has not returned with a relief force,” Perceval said. He coughed again. “You are his man. I need you to ride to Cenlis and find out what is keeping him.”
“He will be back soon, lord,” Caelen said. In fact, he was not sure Talfor would return. It had been nearly four weeks since the count had left, but Caelen did not say this. He wanted to assure the duke that Talfor would come back because Caelen needed to kill Cobus, and to do that, he needed to remain in Alecon. “Give him a few more days.”
“Do you think we will live if I wait a few more days?” Perceval asked. It was an honest question from a desperate man.
“Yes, lord.” Caelen did not answer honestly. Cenlis was over a two days ride, and if he waited to leave in three days, it would be almost a week before he reached Cenlis and then another two or three days to return. A week might be too long. By then, Cobus might control the castle, and Caelen would miss his best opportunity to kill him. He touched the wolf’s head pommel of his sword.
Perceval coughed. “And if he storms the walls?”
“He will not storm the walls, lord. He is trying to starve us out.”
Perceval started to speak but coughed more violently this time.
Caelen continued: “And long before we run out of food, he will return and lift the siege.” Caelen said it with as much conviction as possible, but he could see that Perceval knew, like himself, that they did not have a few days to spare.
The duke shook his head. “You will ride to Cenlis tonight.”
“Just a few more days, lord.”
“No!” And in that moment, Perceval sounded like a king.
But men did not follow words. They followed swords, and many had followed the sword path with Cobus to Alecon, and they waited with the dragon lord outside the castle walls, every one of them eager to kill and to rape and to plunder.
“I will go tonight,” Caelen said. A desperate and defeated man could not be persuaded.
“May the Father and the saints bless your journey.” Perceval coughed. The duke had made his peace.
Caelen left the hall and crossed the bailey to the stables. He mounted his horse, kicked his heels, and his horse galloped across the yard. Upon reaching the east wall of the castle, he exited through a postern gate. He was alone in a field, and across the clearing was the forest, and to his south were the enemy campfires burning red in the darkness. Behind him, curls of gray smoke rose from the torches along the battlements, and the wind snapped at the flags flying above the walls. Caelen wondered how long those banners would remain before the dragon banner flew there instead.
Caelen turned in all directions to see if anyone was following him as he crossed the field. It was difficult to see much of anything, though in the distant firelight, he thought he could make out the outlines of the enemy soldiers around their tents, and beyond the tents were the silhouettes of Cobus’s war machines and siege towers black against the orange light. Caelen reached the edge of the forest. He could hear the wind rustling the white branches and the leaves stirring, and beyond, in the darkness, the earth slept to the breathing of the wind and the rushing of water cascading over rocks. But behind him was death.
Death all around. A ring of fire encircling Perceval’s tomb.
And that was exactly where Caelen wanted to be, inside the walls waiting for death to come in a flurry of screams and blood and steel. Blood for blood. Caelen took one last look at Alecon and then vanished under the cover of the trees.
He rode for two days, and around sunset on the third day, he reached the outskirts of Cenlis. The sky gleamed orange and pale purple with streaks of pink as the sun sank beyond the trees. To the north of the city was a lake, its waters sparkling like a thousand torches in the glow of early evening, and above the lake sat Count Talfor’s stronghold, a circular shell keep with one high center tower overlooking the town and fields below. The stone walls of the shell keep formed a ring on top of a rocky slope with the ridge’s southern face slanting gradually away toward the valley and its northern side plummeting into the lake. The gate had already been sealed for the evening, and curls of smoke rose from the steep thatched roofs of the houses behind the walls.
Caelen crossed a river into the valley and ascended the main road to the castle gates. He was surprised to find no one collecting tolls at the river bridge, as well as no guards visible in the gate towers. He called up to the towers, but no one answered. He expected to see a few townsfolk wander out from their homes at his shouting, but no one showed themselves, and Caelen assumed they must have sought the protection of the castle walls at night. Since he would receive no help until morning, he turned back along the main road and headed toward St. Thomas across the river.
Caelen circled around to the west side of the monastery. The stone walls glowed a pale orange in the torchlight. He led his horse up to the entrance, dismounted, and knocked. A moment later, a slit in the door opened, and a monk dressed in a black frock stared out at him. The cowl of his habit draped his face in shadow.
“May I help you?” the man said.
“I’ve come to see the count,” Caelen said. “I bring an urgent message from Alecon, but the guards wouldn’t open the gates.”
“Travelers are not trusted much after dark,” the monk said. “Not these days, anyway.”
“Not even his own men, apparently,” Caelen said.
“But you are always welcome here. What’s your name?”
“Caelen, son of Faolan, Lord of Erras.”
“How was the duke when you left him in Alecon?”
The monk closed the slit, and the wood creaked as he removed the bar and opened the door. “Come in,” he said.
Caelen entered, and the monk led him down a central pathway toward the chapel. The man’s black robe slid across the ground as he walked. They approached the front of the chapel and entered by way of the main doors into a small, semi-circular room. Torches hung in sconces along the stone walls, the flames flickering a deep red in the darkness. The room was cold. On the opposite wall, Caelen saw two doors leading into another room, from which he heard voices singing. Another monk stood outside the doors. He turned when Caelen entered, nodded to the other man, and exited by way of the main doors.
“This way,” the first monk said, motioning with his right hand, “and I’ll take you to Abbot Darius.” The two of them went through another door, the songs of Vespers fading as the monk shut the door behind them.
Caelen accompanied the man along a passageway that wrapped around the perimeter of the chapel. At the far end of the walk, they entered beneath an archway into a small room lit by a single torch.
“We’re here,” the man said. “This is the abbot’s cell. Stay here please.”
The monk tapped quietly at the entrance, and a muffled response came from within. The monk opened the door and disappeared into a room red with the glow of candles. He pulled the door shut behind him, and a moment later, the monk and the abbot emerged from the room.
“I’m Brother Darius,” the abbot addressed Caelen. “I’m the abbot here at St. Thomas.”
The other monk left the room.
“I’m Caelen, son of Faolan, Lord of Erras. I bring a message for the count from Duke Perceval.”
“The duke is still alive then?”
“He was when I left him. But he won’t be if the count does not send a relief force soon.”
“And you are here to make sure Talfor does that?”
“I am here because the duke wanted me to be here.” But my place is in Alecon. Blood for blood.
Caelen expected more questions, but the abbot asked nothing else. “Come,” Darius said, “I will show you around our community and give you something to eat. You must be hungry after your trip from Alecon.”
Caelen did not argue. He followed Darius as the abbot entered another room lined with desks beneath high, narrow windows. The desks were positioned neatly in rows along the sides of the wall, leaving a walkway running through the center of the room.The glass windows were black with swirls of orange light reflecting in their panes.
“This is the scriptorium,” Darius said. “This is where we make books and manuscripts and a number of legal records and charters. We work here only in the day when the light is much better.”
Caelen had no interest in the abbot or his scriptorium. He was thinking only of Alecon and the man he wanted to kill. Would have killed if I had stayed. He should never have left. He had come here out of service to the duke and to the count and with the small hope that Talfor would actually assemble his army in time and ride to Alecon to lift the siege, but now he had to wait another day. He was angry and hungry and cold, and he wanted little more than food and sleep and for the sun to rise quickly. At the end of the room, Darius stopped.
“Up those stairs,” the abbot said, pointing to a wooden stairwell, “that’s the library. We have many books, one of the finest libraries in the entire kingdom of Aricin.” He smiled. “It remains closed to almost everyone, especially guests, so I cannot show you. There is much power in those books.”
“There is more power in swords.”
“I’m sure there are many prophets and saints who would disagree with you.” Darius smiled again. “Words have tremendous power.”
“But have those prophets or saints ever stood in the wall of shields before a battle?” Caelen said. “Have they seen the wild ferocity in an enemy’s eyes that makes even a grown man piss himself, and or have they felt the warm spray of blood on their necks?”
He was thinking of Cobus’s army camped outside the walls and the duke’s soldiers standing on the battlements waiting for the army to march and how he should have been standing there with them.
“Ask those who have,” Caelen continued, “and then tell me what has more power, swords or books.”
The abbot followed this comment with silence. He led Caelen out of the scriptorium and into an empty courtyard. A variety of plants was growing in plots around the edges of the small cloister. The air was cold, and thousands of stars glimmered in the deepening sky of evening.
Caelen could tell his last comment had made Darius uncomfortable, but priests and monks and bishops did not want to think about—did not have to experience—the horrors of war. All they cared about were their precious books and relics and the coin they generated from those relics and the power an old saint’s bones gave them over the people. But prayers and jeweled crosses did not win wars. Swords did. Caelen wrapped his fingers around the wolf head pommel of his blade.
Death has no master.
“When did you eat last?” Darius asked.
“I ate some bread this morning, father,” Caelen said.
“I want all our guests to be well fed and enjoy a good night of rest,” the abbot said. “We will put you up in one of the guesthouses for the night, and in the morning, you will visit Count Talfor.”
Tomorrow will be too late.
Caelen followed Darius through an archway on the other side of the courtyard into another corridor. Their footsteps echoed on the flagstones as they moved along the arcade. At the end of the hallway, they passed through a doorway into a vaulted room with stone columns rising to the ceiling. Statues of saints stood on pedestals along the walls, and farther up the walls were long windows with illustrations etched into stained glass. One of the pictures showed a multitude of people being led through a path in the sea with walls of water towering above them.
A group of monks was exiting through a door on the opposite side of the room. Caelen realized he was in the main chapel. He looked up at the high ceiling. It was supported by a network of wooden ribs that crisscrossed one another above the nave, and below, near the main altar, his eyes followed the lines of the nave to a reading stand near several rows of seats, and beyond the seats was another door leading out of the chapel. Above the door was an inscription that read: Quam angusta porta. How narrow is the gate.
Darius walked down the left aisle past a circular pool filled with water and under an archway, his body floating underneath his gown as he crossed the flagstones. Caelen followed him through the archway to another courtyard, this one slightly larger than the last.
“This is the main cloister,” Darius said. “Many of our daily activities take place here. The brothers come here to relax from their studies, to read and to talk, and even play games. I believe it is important to maintain a strict code of conduct, but that does not mean we should not enjoy life as well. Our relationships with one another give us strength and bind us together.”
Caelen had heard rumors about the relationships some of the monks had with one another, something they did not wish the outside world to know about, no doubt.
In the center of the courtyard was a water fountain adorned with flowers. Everyone had retired after Vespers, except for one man sitting in the southwest corner of the yard. He was dressed in a white gown, his frail body hunched over a book. He did not acknowledge Caelen or the abbot as they walked behind the columns. An oil lantern hung from a tree above his head, and a cane was propped next to him against the stone wall. He stroked his long, white beard.
“Who is he?” Caelen asked.
“Jehan,” Darius said. “You see, he wears the white. Such a bright color for a dying order. He is the last of his kind.”
Darius nodded. “I feel sorry for the old man, so I offer him my protection. The bishops have killed too many to count and destroyed their writings. Such a shame to burn their writings.”
But not a shame to burn their bodies? “My mother believed their teachings,” Caelen said.
“A small remnant still holds to their beliefs. Cobus and the bishops do not deal kindly
with those who openly voice their agreement with the Casari. I pray your mother is safe.”
“My mother is safe,” Caelen said. He did not feel the need to tell Darius his mother had died three years earlier.
They continued to walk toward Jehan, but the Casari did not glance up. “And what about you?” Darius said. “What do you believe?”
“I don’t know what to believe.”
Jehan shut his book, laid it down on the stone ledge, and pushed himself up. He grabbed his cane and hobbled toward Caelen and Darius, the wooden rod clicking as he walked. When he came closer, Caelen could see the man’s face was leathery and wrinkled. He had deep-set eyes, a drooping nose, and a sunken mouth.
“Jehan,” Darius addressed him. “I would like for you to meet Caelen of Erras. He has come to see the count. He brings news of the war in the west.”
The old man cleared his throat, coughed, and cleared this throat again. He licked his lips, his gaze shifting between Caelen and the abbot. “What news?” The Casari rested his frail body against the neck of his cane.
“Alecon is still besieged,” Caelen said, “the people are starving, and day and night Cobus pounds the walls with his cursed machines.”
“And you’ve come hoping Talfor will be the one to lift the siege?” Jehan asked.
“I’ve come because the duke asked me to,” Caelen answered. Blood for blood. He should still be in Alecon, but fate had brought him here.
“Don’t waste your time with Talfor. He cannot save Perceval or the Aricin kingdom from destruction. Only Elias can do that.”
The king across the great sea.
Thirty years ago Elias had sent an expedition to this new world, and since then, he had abandoned his people. Yet the Casari were still loyal to him. The Casari were the great king’s priests, his prophets.
Ignorant fools. No wonder they’re a dying order.
“Maybe he can, priest, but he won’t,” Caelen said. And maybe Talfor would, but he couldn’t. No matter if the count sent a relief force in the morning, the kingdom of Aricin would not survive, which was why Caelen knew his journey to Cenlis was hopeless.
I should be in Alecon. The wolf head pommel felt cold in his palm, the eyes like ice, teeth snarling, eager to sink into Cobus’s flesh. I should be there. Blood for blood..
“Go there while you still can,” Jehan said, pointing his cane at Caelen. “Go there and wait. A great army is gathering there. You must go.” The cane shook in his bony fingers.
“What are you talking about, old man?” Caelen said. The only place he wanted to be was in Alecon.
“Chermon,” Jehan said.
“The city is a myth,” Caelen said. The City of the Ancients. A city beyond the lands of snow and ice. A place, some claimed, built by the hands of giants or by the ancient gods themselves. A city lined with gold and silver.
Jehan shook his head at the word myth. “No,” he said. “You must go. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. For the yoke of their burden shall be broke along with the staff on their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. For every boot of the warrior in battle and cloak rolled in blood will be for burning, fuel for the fire.”
Jehan lowered his staff and walked away, the rod clicking against the stones as he moved across the cloister. He exited through an archway on the opposite side of the courtyard.
“He is quoting one of the ancient texts,” Darius said. “There may have been a time when the Casari had a true gift but their power is gone. Jehan’s visions are no more trustworthy than the advice of a dog. He’s crazy.” Darius glanced in the direction where Jehan had gone. “Come. Let us go to the refectory to eat.”
Caelen followed Darius to the southern end of the courtyard, and they entered a long, rectangular shaped building. The monk motioned for Caelen to sit. Several rows of wooden benches and tables lined the hall, and Caelen sat at one closest to the door. Darius closed the door behind them, its frame snapping shut against the wooden doorposts. The aroma of fresh cheese and stew still lingered in the room.
“I believe we still have some beef stew left over from earlier,” Darius said. “I’ll be back shortly.” The abbot disappeared into the kitchen off to the right.
Caelen sat alone thinking about the war and Duke Perceval’s desperation when he had left Alecon. Count Talfor was not likely to send a relief force and then what? Perceval would die and his supporters would scatter and Cobus would have nearly everything.
Two brothers dead, one left, and then there was Lolek’s heir taken into hiding somewhere in the south.
The third brother, Benoic, would stay on his island kingdom he called Pagannia to the north and hope Cobus would not bring his army across the channel.
I should have stayed in Alecon. I’ll never have a better chance to kill him. If he rode back now, then perhaps…but no, he had a duty to his lord, and fate had brought him here.
An army is gathering, Jehan had said. Go to Chermon.
The old man was crazy; all the Casari were crazy, but his own mother had believed their teachings, and he would not label her a heretic. He would not say she was crazy, only the Casari, but the Casari were wrong. Elias would never protect them. It was this loyalty to Elias and the Casari’s many false interpretations of the law that had provoked the bishops to silence them. And so the bishops, with Cobus’s support, had rounded up as many Casari as they could track down and burned them at the stake, along with their precious writings.
Fire is more powerful than books. Swords and fire.
Darius returned from the kitchen and laid a wooden bowl and cup of wine on the table. “The stew is still warm,” he said.
“Thank you,” Caelen said. He lifted the spoon from the bowl and slowly began to sip the hot broth.
“After you’ve eaten, I will have one of our brothers take you to the guesthouse, and tomorrow you can see the count.”
Tomorrow will be too late, Caelen thought again. “I need to see him tonight.”
“Yes, I know.”
“The guards would not open the gates for a soldier but they would for a priest.”
“I cannot leave St. Thomas at this hour,” Darius said. “I have duties to attend to.”
“You must help me.”
“If the Father has spared Alecon for this long, he will spare it at least one more night. You must put your trust in Him.”
“You don’t understand, father. Prayers and books will do nothing to save Alecon. I need to see the count.” Caelen finished the last of the stew and pushed the bowl toward Darius.
“Why are you here?” Darius asked.
“I told you, because the duke sent me.”
“No.” Darius paused. “Why are you here when the man you want to kill is in Alecon?”
“What do you mean?” Caelen asked.
“I’ve seen that look in many men’s eyes before. It is the look of vengeance.”
Caelen paused, waiting for the abbot to say something else, but Darius just stared at him. “That’s why I must see the count tonight,” Caelen said. “I need to return to Alecon as quickly as possible.”
“To kill this man.”
“Yes, to kill this man,” Caelen said. “He killed my father and my brothers, and now I will kill him. You have your duties, and I have mine.” Blood for blood.
“You should leave vengeance up to Him.”
“You wouldn’t understand, father.”
“It’s that simple then?” Darius said.
“Yes, it’s that simple.”
“Then you will kill him.” Darius pushed back from the table and took the bowl into the kitchen. He returned with more stew and a loaf of bread this time and more wine. Caelen ate the stew and bread as quickly as the first serving, and when he finished, he stood up from the table.
“You will show me to my room now?” Caelen said.
“Yes, of course,” the abbot said, and he stood and led Caelen from the refectory.
They entered the cloister once again and crossed the yard to the chapel.
“I will have one of the brothers wake you shortly before sunrise,” Darius said. “To make sure you are on your way as soon as possible.”
Swords and fire. The abbot would never understand.
Darius and Caelen circled around to the front of the chapel, where Caelen had first entered a little over an hour ago. A monk stood near the entrance, warming his hands over a fire. It was the same man who had taken him to the abbot earlier.
“Would you please show our guest to his cell?” Darius said to him. The man nodded. The abbot turned to Caelen. “Well, I suppose our night ends here. May the blessings of the Father and the saints be upon you. I will light a candle and say a special prayer to them for the duke.”
“Light four,” Caelen said. “For the duke, for the soldiers, and for the women and children.”
“Of course.” Darius nodded and then entered the chapel.
The other monk motioned for Caelen to follow. He led Caelen to an open walkway on the north side of the chapel. Caelen recognized the area from earlier. They crossed the grounds to the guesthouse. The monk opened one of the doors facing the yard.
“Here is your cell,” he said. “Let me know if I can be of any further help to you.”
“Thank you,” Caelen said.
The man nodded and left the room.
Caelen stepped inside the tiny chamber and closed the door. The living space was no more than four meters wide by five meters long. There was nothing in the room except for a dusty cot in one corner and a desk with a broken chair in another. A candle burned on the desktop. Caelen stared at it as he lay down on the bed. He watched the flame twist and pulse, the wax dripping slowly into the stand, and after a while, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
He awoke to the sound of voices from outside. The room was dark, as the candle on the desk had burned out some time ago. Caelen climbed out of bed and walked to the door. He pressed his palm to the wooden frame and inched the door open so that a slit of light slashed across the floor.
Across the yard, he saw a few of the brothers talking to a group of men. Caelen counted six men in the group. Five were soldiers wearing black, and the other was dressed in a clergyman’s clothes. The clergyman was addressing the monks in a raised voice while the soldiers waited behind him. Caelen cursed under his breath.
They’ve come for Jehan.
Jehan was one of the last Casari priests who had not already lost his head or who had not been burned to ashes or who was not rotting away in a prison somewhere. Caelen knew that if they caught him, they would certainly kill him. He needed to find Jehan before the soldiers did.
Caelen eased the door open and slipped out behind the buildings along the northern wall of the monastery. Rain spattered the buildings, thunder clapped, and bursts of white light filled the darkening sky. He could hear the irritation in the clergyman’s voice rising on the wind. The brothers could do nothing to calm him.
Where was Darius? Would the abbot hide Jehan or hand him over to the soldiers?
Caelen ran. His feet slapped puddles of water as he crossed the yard, while behind him, he could see the soldiers’ torches fanning out to find him. He counted three men, including the clergyman, heading toward the guesthouse.
Caelen nearly made it to the eastern buildings when two more torches rounded the far side of the chapel. He hadn’t seen those soldiers earlier as they must have already been searching for him while the clergyman talked with the monks. Caelen ducked into the building nearest him, a tiny one-celled chamber stacked with shelves of glass vials and books. Outside, the rain pounded the thatched roof and dripped off the eaves. Even though they had come for the Casari, Caelen knew he had to remain catious. They were still Cobus’s men and he was the enemy, and if they spotted him they would likely kill him. They would see he was a soldier, and they would assume he fought for Duke Perceval, and they would kill him. It was that simple.
Caelen peered through the wooden slats at the approaching soldiers. The two men circled behind the other buildings out of view and then re-appeared. They were just an arms throw away, so close Caelen could smell the smoke from their torches and hear their mail coats jingling as they walked. They stopped just outside the door, seemingly content to make a sweep of the monastery without checking all the buildings.
Their backs were to him, and Caelen knew he would not have a better chance to kill them both. He would have to act quickly, kill them with two strokes, and then hide their bodies. He wasn’t sure where the clergyman and the other two soldiers had gone, as he couldn’t see the guesthouse from inside the chamber, and it was that thought which caused him to hesitate.
And it was that hesitation which lost him his chance.
The two men stepped away from the door and began walking toward the center of the yard. They were too far now for Caelen to reach them easily. If he attacked, they would hear him coming, and they would have enough time to turn and cut him down. He might take one man, but his flank would be exposed to the other man’s slash, and without a shield, he would be completely defenseless on one side. He would have a better chance of avoiding them altogether, just slip out the door and around the backside of the buildings, but still he could not see the clergyman or the other soldiers, and so he stayed.
He looked for another way out. His eyes followed the lines of the floor across the room and up the walls to the ceiling. Of course. He could slip his body through the thatched roofing and crawl down the backside of the building.
Caelen reached up and grabbed one of the supporting beams, but before pulling himself up, he saw a door hidden in the opposite corner of the room behind the shelves. He hadn’t noticed it when he first entered, and he knew then that he would make it out of St. Thomas alive.
He hurried over to the door and pushed away the shelf, the wood scraping against the floor. He couldn’t pause to see if the soldiers outside had heard him. He knew he must act quickly, and so he pressed his hand against the door’s frame and leaned into it with his shoulder, but the door didn’t move. He tried again, this time flinging his entire body against the frame so loudly that he was sure the men outside could hear the thumping, and if not for the rain and thunder, they would have certainly found him by now.
Caelen then took out his knife and attempted to pry the door open by wedging the blade between the frame. He could see the door begin to loosen as he wiggled the edge between the small opening on the left-hand side of the frame. He pulled at it with his right hand, trying to pop it free from the wall. The top corner came loose, but the bottom corner still remained fixed to the doorframe, the old oak bending and creaking as it strained against its hinges. Through the gap, he could feel the cold rain spitting and the wind prickling his skin, but the door would not open any farther.
He would have to go through the roof after all. The thatch was thick and heavy with rain, but he had no choice. He cursed the door again and then moved back to the front of the room where he could see the soldiers through the slats. Both were still there, but the clergyman and the other two soldiers had joined them now. By Caelen’s count, there were still three others somewhere in St. Thomas looking for Jehan. Caelen could hear the clergyman’s voice above the rain.
“You checked all the buildings?”
“Not all, father,” one soldier answered.
“Then quit standing around holding your pricks and find him! Every building! Search them all!”
The lights moved again. Two torches headed off to the south, but the other two soldiers stayed with the clergyman in front of Caelen’s cell. The clergyman was dressed in a fine wool robe dyed black with a black hood shadowing his face. He looked like death, and that was exactly what he was.
The inquisitor and two soldiers remained there for a moment longer. The larger of the two soldiers was pointing to the south, and the other one kicked at the ground with his boot. The clergyman shook his head and then pushed back the hood of his cloak as someone approached from his left. He turned to the soldiers again, said something, and Caelen, in that brief moment, could see the man’s face: clean shaven with short cropped hair and dark, inset eyes.
Darius appeared in Caelen’s view, and the inquisitor greeted him coolly. Caelen could not hear what they were saying over the rain, but he could see the inquisitor’s frustration growing. The abbot was obviously not giving him the answers he wanted.
If Darius wants to betray Jehan, he’ll do it now.
“You’re lying to me!” the inquisitor said.
“I assure you,” Darius said, “there is no one else here.”
“Did you search these buildings?” The clergyman turned to the soldiers and pointed directly at the house where Caelen was hiding. The man’s dark eyes glared at Caelen through the slats, but Caelen didn’t move for fear the inquisitor would see him.
“No,” one of the soldiers mumbled a response.
“Then do it,” the inquisitor said and turned back to the abbot.
He and Darius walked toward the center of the yard, while the two soldiers came for Caelen.
Caelen gripped the wolf’s head as he slid the blade toward the neck of the fleece-lined scabbard. The blade sang softly as it came free. Soon, it would howl and scream its song of death, its edge biting into flesh, snarling and slashing and cutting, but for now it growled, and Caelen waited.
The men approached but then changed direction and first went to the building at the far end of the row. They were to the southeast, out of sight behind the buildings, but he could still see Darius and the clergyman standing in the yard. They were too far away now for Caelen to hear them, but they would certainly see him if he exited through the front door, and so he would still need to go out the back or through the roof. Caelen leaned against the right wall of the chamber and peered through the gaps in the wooden planks. The two soldiers were already at the adjacent building. They flung open the door and went inside.
Caelen sheathed his blade and tried the back door one last time. He shoved his knife into the gap and strained at the hinges, his arms and back tightening as he pulled, and in a sudden rush of air, the door popped free, and he was standing outside in the rain. He eased the door shut behind him and flattened his body against the wall.
The soldiers finished searching the adjacent house, came to where Caelen had been hiding, scanned inside quickly, and moved on to the next house. The path was clear behind the buildings now. In the other direction was the eastern gate. Caelen could see it through the mist, the stone arch visible beyond the shadows, the walls rimmed in faint torchlight, and if he ran, he could escape outside to the woods lining the river. But he could not leave Jehan to his fate. He needed to find the priest. He turned around one last time to be certain no one was behind him, and then he saw him.
Jehan was standing against the outer wall several buildings away. Caelen hadn’t seen him before. The man was kneeling in the dirt, and when the sky flashed white, Caelen could see the man’s white cloak and long, white beard. Jehan was tugging at something at his feet, and then the earth gave way as a door swung up out of the ground, and the Casari descended a staircase and closed the hatch behind him.
Part of Caelen wanted to follow Jehan, but the eastern gate was closer, and since he knew the priest would be safe, he decided to take the opportunity to escape himself. The path to the eastern gate had more buildings to hide him, and to reach Jehan, he would have to cross a wider stretch of open ground with a greater risk of the soliders seeing him. Once outside, he could wait in the woods until dawn and then go see Count Talfor.
May the Father and saints bless you old man.
Caelen touched a wooden cross hanging from his neck. The cross had been his mother’s, and she had given it to him before the fever finally took her. He wore it always. The cross was to remember his mother, and the wolf’s head was to remember his father and brothers.
Faolan, the Lord of Erras, the Wolf Lord.
Caelen watched as the soldiers rejoined the inquisitor and the abbot. He wanted to be certain they would not sweep behind the buildings before he ran for the eastern gate.
“Burn it!” Caelen heard the inquisitor say. “All of it!”
“No, you can’t!” Darius pleaded. “The books. Think of everything you’ll be destroying!”
But the inquisitor wasn’t listening. “Do it now!” he commanded his men. “And look outside the monastery for him. Search the village!”
One of the soldiers headed for the chapel, and the other went toward the western gate. The clerygman watched them go and then turned back to the abbot. Darius started to plead with him again, but instead, his voice came in a gurgle of blood. The inquisitor had taken a dagger from his sleeve and rammed it through the abbot’s throat, and Darius twitched and floundered like a speared boar as he clutched at the blade in his neck.
The abbot fell to his knees, the blood running through his fingers as he clawed at his throat with both hands, and finally, he stopped fighting and collapsed. The inquisitor reached down and retracted the knife and then wiped the blade clean on the dead abbot’s frock.
There was nothing Caelen could do but watch the abbot die. Darius’s muscles twitched for a while longer, and then his body lay still, while behind him, the flames began to rise from the chapel.
I should kill him.
The inquisitor was one of Cobus’s men, and he had killed an innocent man, and by the rules of law, he should have died. But he didn’t live by the rules of law, he lived by the laws of religion, and that was enough to protect him. If Caelen killed him, he knew he would suffer eternal darkness and torment, and that was enough to protect the clergyman.
The man was moving away now. Caelen had missed his chance, if he was ever going to take it, and so he looked at the abbot’s body one last time and then ran for the eastern gate. He clutched the cross at his neck.
Requiescat in Pace, father.
Caelen reached the gate, opened it, and slipped out into the darkness of the night.
He stood in a clearing. Far off to the northeast, he could see the lights burning on the outer walls of Cenlis. Caelen ran across the clearing into the woods east of the monastery. Once there, he glanced behind him, but the night was so black he couldn’t see more than fifteen feet in front of him. A branch snapped, and he whipped his head around, listening, but the noise didn’t come again. All he could hear was the steady rhythm of the rain along with his breath rising and falling in his chest. Caelen went farther into the woods, and when he felt he had gone far enough, he sat down against the trunk of a large oak, sheltered from the rain beneath its thick branches, and he waited for sunrise. The air was bitter cold, and he was drenched from the rain, and he wanted nothing more than to start a fire and feel the heat against his skin.
A drumming of thunder filled the northern sky, a sign Caelen hoped that the storm was moving away, though the rain didn’t slacken, and instead of fading on the wind, the thunder grew louder. It rolled over the northern ridges and spread across the valley. As it passed over the river, Caelen felt a slight trembling in the earth, and he realized it was not thunder he was hearing.
It was horses. Dozens of them.
He jumped up and leaned against the oak, his eyes scanning the tree line to the north. And then he saw the lights. The horsemen were charging across the clearing toward St. Thomas, their figures streaked by the flaring light, sparks trailing like ribbons of flame behind them, their armor glistening in the firelight, and then they were gone, the cadence of hoofbeats fading into the falling rain. It was the garrison from Cenlis. The knights and men-at-arms must have seen the monastery burning, and they were riding out to protect it.
Caelen ran through the heavy brush after them, tree limbs and vines and brambles scratching at him as he ran. He wanted to have a chance to kill Cobus’s men if there was a fight.
He emerged from the woods near the road that led from the town’s gate to the bridge and out to the monastery. He crossed the road and hid behind a farmhouse. The monastery blazed, and the monks were coming out of the gate and up the road toward the town. The soldiers and inquisitor rode behind them, and when Talfor’s knights and men-at-arms saw them, they galloped forward to encircle them. Caelen snuck around the farmhouse and ran to the corner of a barn. From there, he was closer and could hear the men’s conversation. The monks had stopped in the middle of the road. They all turned to watch.
The inquisitor rode forward as the horsemen approached.
“Did you do this?” one of Talfor’s knights asked.
The inquisitor pulled the hood back over his head. “Yes, by Cobus’s orders,” he said. “They were harboring a heretic, so the place must be purged of sin.”
Behind them, the chapel windows glowed orange from within, and black smoke began to billow from the rooftop. Cobus’s solders had fired many of the buildings, and soon the flames would rise to the ceilings and catch the thatch or wooden shingles, and all of St. Thomas would be ablaze.
Swords and fire.
“This is Count Talfor’s land,” the knight said.
“Then tell the count he should talk with King Cobus,” the inquisitor said. “Perhaps they can come to an agreement over the price of the monastery.”
The inquisitor and the soldiers turned to leave, and Talfor’s men did nothing to stop them. A couple of the knights closed ranks to keep Cobus’s men from passing, but the leader of the garrison motioned for them to back away, and so they did. Talfor’s men did not want to be accused of defending a Casari, and they likely did not want to damn their souls either by laying hands on a priest. The inquisitor and the soldiers galloped west as St. Thomas sputtered under the flames and smoke. To the east, dawn was breaking, the light a molten gold pouring over the bank of the ridge, while to the west, the sky was blue, pale and dark, as the night fled from the rising sun.
And Caelen knew he must hurry. He needed to see Talfor.