“War is a necessary evil. There is not a day or time when each of us does not battle some sort of enemy either within or around us. The true test of our character lies in the instant when we choose to either ignore or defeat that which seeks to destroy us. It is the same in our kingdom. Hirth has seen its share of battles and this great province has ridden the wings of freedom for many an age; however, there will come a day when an evil so immense will seek to threaten our very existence. It is then the knights of Gyllen Castle will rise to the aid of Hirth and defend all that is dear – our families, our land, and our right to survive. When such a time comes, I will fight with honor and for glory and give my life, if my forfeiture of it will allow Hirth the chance to endure in peace. And while I know that the enemy may prevail and my life be extinguished from this body, my death will not be in vain for what is more honorable than giving one’s life for love of family, country…and freedom.”
Sir Trogsdill Domnall.
If Eric had known what the daylight would bring after the nightmares ended, he would have remained in bed, the covers pulled over his head.
Instead, he waded through the puddles of the castle’s upper courtyard, each gong from the clock tower further coiling his stomach into knots. Sloshing along beside him, down the aisle of topiaries and statues, was his best friend, a devilish lad with unkempt hair the color of dirt and a cock-eyed grin.
“I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry,” Sestian said, polishing an apple on his sleeve. “Weapons class began fifteen minutes ago. Master Mafi won’t allow us in.” The apple crunched in his teeth.
“You don’t understand, Ses. I have to try.” Eric swatted at the spindly arms of a willow tree. “This will be the third day in a row I missed. If I don’t go, word will get back to Trog and he’ll flog me. You know how he gets.”
“You worry too much. He’d never physically hurt you, however, I do have to admit, he is quite an odd fellow. I saw him make another midnight trek to the fountain last night. He sat there all hunched over like he’d lost his best friend, then he stood, dropped a rose in the water, and left.”
Eric’s muscles bunched under his light shirt, his brow pinched. “That is bizarre, even for him.”
“Want to hear something even more bizarre?” Sestian paused, took another bite of the apple and buried the core in a potted plant. “I overheard Trog and my own headache of a master talking this morning. I believe the exact words out of Farnsworth’s mouth were, ‘Fallhollow is under attack’.”
Eric came to a stop, his eyes wide. “Attack? From who?”
Sestian shrugged. “Don’t know, but members of the Senate and the Mage’s High Council arrived an hour ago, including the Supreme Master himself. They’re meeting with the Order as we speak.”
“What?” Eric’s pulse quickened. “Jared’s here? You saw him?”
The grand mage of all magical beings never involved himself in the affairs of men. Ever.
“No, but I plan to change that.” An impish twinkle glistened in Sestian’s eyes. “Are you game?”
“What? You want to—you mean—you’re joking, right?”
The puckish grin on Sestian’s face answered his question.
Eric shook his head. “Oh, no. There is no way you’re going to get me to eavesdrop on a secret council meeting. I’d rather get hit by lightning than suffer the punishment from anyone sitting in that room.”
“Aww, come on, Eric. Must you always be so dull? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
“That sort of curiosity will land us in the pillory at best.” Eric pushed past his friend through the carved citadel doors. Sestian darted in front of him and stopped.
“My point is that I value my life.”
“And what of Fallhollow? Don’t you value our home?”
“Of course I do, but—”
“Then what are you waiting for?” Sestian punched Eric’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“Ses, no!” Eric’s protest fell on empty ears. His friend was gone.
Eric brushed past the lapis columns of the marble vestibule into the Great Hall, a wide-open space topped by a domed ceiling so high its ornate detail was almost lost in the darkness. Nobles and servants milled about, coming and going out of the many rooms, laughter echoing off the walls speckled with massive tapestries and oiled paintings. A flock of girls dressed in aristocratic finery stood upon the majestic staircase, twittering like excited canaries. One of them, Lady Emelia, a startling girl with red hair and striking features, waved at him and winked. Eric rolled his eyes and scurried down the hall past the stairs. The last thing he wanted or needed was a flighty girl choking his freedom.
He passed several lavish rooms before spotting his friend at the far end of the music room, leaning on a harp.
“What took you so long?” Sestian grinned, then pushed aside a wall tapestry and vanished through a secret door.
“Drat you, Ses. How do you find these things?” Eric glanced over his shoulder and followed.
Inside, Sestian struck a wooden match against the stone wall and lit a torch he plucked from an iron sconce. They climbed a set of narrow steps. The guttering flame of Sestian’s torch cast shadows on the walls. More than once the passageway twisted and turned as they ascended.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Eric asked.
Sestian laughed. “We’re in the heart of the castle and you’re going to ask that question now?”
They continued upward. After what seemed an eternity, the steps emptied onto the landing of a dark corridor filled with cobwebs. Sestian stopped and thrust the torch at Eric. “Hold this.” He spun a wall sconce in a combination of left and right turns until a latch popped, and a hidden door opened inward, exposing a small room filled with wooden crates.
“What the—?” Eric stepped inside, his mouth open.
Sestian placed his finger to his lips and motioned to a jagged hole the size of a man’s fist in the wall.
Curious, Eric squatted and peered through a banner of delicate silk.
“Dragon’s breath,” he whispered. “That’s the king’s arbitration room!” He flicked a sideways glance at Sestian. “How did you find this?”
“I don’t sleep much, remember?”
“Good heavens, you are crazy.”
A chair scraped across the wood floor below. Four mages, recognizable by their golden skin, turquoise eyes, and sapphire–blue garments, sat on one side of an immense oval table. Four senators clad in similar garments of purple and gold sat across from them. At one head of the table sat Trog and Farnsworth. At the other, a sojourner shrouded in black with silver rings upon his fingers and tattoos etched upon his hands. And at one of the five arched windows stood the sorceress, Slavandria, her thick lavender hair plaited in a single braid to the floor.
“Jared,” Eric said under his breath.
“Yep,” Sestian said. “That’d be my guess.”
Below, Trog leaned forward, his massive hands clasped together, and addressed the cloaked figure opposite him. “We will heed your warnings, Master Jared, and dispatch a legion to His Majesty’s entourage. I also think it wise to notify our neighbors to the north of the encroaching threat. If this enemy’s intentions are to see Hirth fall, he will attack our allies first to render our kingdom helpless.”
“Agreed.” Jared’s voice resonated deep within the chambers, and into Eric’s core. “Master Camden, see to it the kingdoms of Trent and Banning are informed of the possible threat. Also, instruct the shime to dispatch regiments and secure the borders of Hirth.”
“Do you feel that necessary?” replied the bald man clad in blue. “There is no proof the kingdom of Hirth or the realm of Fallhollow, for that matter, is under attack. There have only been a few isolated incidents of bloodshed, nothing that could be construed as acts of war.”
“Master Camden,” Jared said, “several families of barbegazis, nine unicorns, and over a hundred humans are dead all in the course of four days. This morning, patrols rescued a herd of pixies from a crow’s cage in the Elmwithian Marsh. They were swathed in dragon’s blood. Might I remind you a single act of brutality, especially one steeped in black magic as these incidences are, is one violation too many. Our job is to protect this world, and more so this kingdom, from any dark sorcery that may threaten it. If this directive is in any way unclear, I will be more than happy to personally instruct you in the importance of upholding your defensive role.”
A chill crept up Eric’s spine.
“Oh, come on. Instruct him,” Sestian said, a grin stretched across his face.
A palpable silence fell over the room. Master Camden shifted in his seat and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead.
“Personal instruction is not necessary, Supreme Master.”
“I find that to be a wise decision.”
Eric exhaled. Yes, so do I.
Jared stood and pulled the hood of his cloak forward. “Since we are in agreement, I believe we can dismiss. Sir Trogsdill, if I may, I’d like to speak with my daughter alone.”
“Of course,” Trog said, standing. “The rest of you, follow me to the dining hall where you can feast before your journey home.”
“I don’t believe this, Sestian whispered as Trog ushered the last of the visitors out and closed the door behind him.
“Shh,” Eric said.
Down below, Slavandria, said “What is on your mind, Father?”
Jared strolled past her, his hands tucked into his voluminous sleeves. “I have given this a great deal of thought and I have reached a decision. Considering all that has happened, I am left with no other choice. As queen of the Southern Forest and protector of this realm, you must summon the paladin.”
Her gasp could have ripped leaves from their stems.
“Father, no! I can’t! The paladin is only to be summoned in the direst of circumstances. While these attacks are horrid, they are far from extreme.”
“Father, please. The ramifications will be devastating to all those involved. Together with the shime, we’ll find this enemy and bring him into the light. I beg you. Please do not do this.”
“If that were true, they would have done so by now. As such, your arguing is futile. My decision is made. By sunset within three days, you must fulfill your duties. I will have the document drawn and sealed. Have Mangus deliver it. So it is said?”
Slavandria’s jaw tightened. “You’re being unreasonable.”
“And you are bordering the line of punishment.”
Eric shuddered at the menacing tone.
“Do I have your word?” Jared said.
Slavandria straightened her back and steadied her voice. “Yes, Father. So it is said. So it shall be done, but don’t think for one minute I won’t improvise when the time presents itself.”
“You have always been my challenge child. I would expect nothing less from you. Now, if you will forgive me, I must go.”
“Where this time?”
“Home, to Felindil for a day. Afterwards, I will be in seclusion, communing with the heavens before taking to the sea.”
“What? And leave me here to set the world right once the paladin arrives?”
Jared’s full-bodied laughter filled the room. “You sound as if the demon of the underworld will rise, spewing fire and ash.”
“And how do you know he won’t?” She paused, her fingers steepled to her lips before continuing. “Father, please. All I ask is for once, in your long, stubborn life, you listen to me. The people of this kingdom and all of Fallhollow are innocent. They need our protection. I fear what the paladin’s presence will do. You can’t bring such devastation upon Fallhollow and then leave me to salvage whatever is left.”
“I bring nothing upon this realm; therefore, I leave you with nothing to clean up. The course of the world is set. Events will unfold as they will. The paladin will not change that which is set in motion.”
“You’re wrong, Father.” Slavandria brushed past him.
“Disagree if you must. You always do. For now, go home. Wait for my summoning papers and prepare the traveler. I will come to you in Chalisdawn three days hence.”
Jared snapped his fingers. White shards of light crackled and zapped around him, and he was gone.
Slavandria shook her head. “You have no idea what you’ve done, Father.” She gathered her cloak from the back of a chair and incanted some strange words. A swift pale-blue mist rose from the floor, swirling, engulfing her in a vortex. The air sizzled and splintered, and she, too, disappeared.
“Whoa,” Sestian said. “This is worse than bad.”
“No kidding,” Eric stood and brushed the dust from his breeches, “and I have a feeling it’s going to get a lot worse.”
Sestian withdrew the torch as they left the room and shut the door. “You do realize we’re going to have to find out who this paladin is, right?”
Eric walked down the steps. “Why is that?”
“Come on. Are you that daft? How else are we going to prove to Trog and Farnsworth that we’re deserving of becoming knights? Right now they think we’re nothing but a pair of imbeciles worthy of nothing more than polishing armor and performing duties of a valet.”
“We’re squires, Ses. That’s what we do.”
“And it’s all we’ll ever do if we don’t prove ourselves. Don’t you get it? When was the last time Gyllen Castle or Hirth saw battle, hmm?”
“You sound as if you want war.”
“No, but I haven’t trained all my life to become a knight only to end up as a fat, lazy, well-paid manservant.”
Eric turned a corner and continued downward, his voice hollow in the muted dark. “I don’t think you’ll ever be fat or lazy.”
“Eric, come on. Why must you be so difficult? Without a skirmish or two, acts of heroism for us are limited to rescuing girls from over-zealous drunkards and protecting the royal dinner from the palace dogs. I want more than that. When I die, I don’t want to be remembered for how well I polished a sword, but for something grand and heroic. Don’t you want the same?”
“Of course I do, but I don’t sit around thinking about what legacy I want to leave behind when I die.”
“Liar. All you ever talk about is how much you want to be a knight like Trog.” Sestian shoved past Eric and blocked his descent. “Think about it. You know as well as I we’ll be relegated to the stables to saddle horses and pack rations and bedrolls if there is the slightest hint of a conflict. They won’t let us anywhere near a battlefield, especially you. It’s like you’re some kind of poster boy for squire school.”
“I know, but—”
“No, there are no buts. Don’t you see? Now is our chance to show our mettle. If we team up with this paladin, we have a chance to prove ourselves. Trog and Farnsworth will have to take notice.”
“Yeah, after they flog, tar and feather us. Besides, what makes you think this paladin will want us, huh? He’s probably some powerful sorcerer like Jared.”
“No one is as powerful as Jared, but I’ll bet you a rooster against a duck this savior dabbles not only in white, but black magic, too. That’s why Jared needs him.”
“Which is all the more reason for us to keep our distance.”
“No! It’s all the more reason for us to find him. He’ll need guides to help him maneuver through our lands. We’ll be heroes for saving Fallhollow from a murderous foe. King Gildore will praise us. Songs will be written about us.”
Eric rolled his eyes.
Sestian snorted. “Don’t think I can’t hear your eyes flipping around in their sockets. You know I’m right. We know every crack in the earth Fallhollow possesses. We’ve been trained by the very best knights in the world. On top of that, I have a knack for getting us in and out of places unseen. You’re extraordinary with a blade. Together, we’re dangerous. We can be his eyes and ears. And when we defeat whatever is out there, Trog and Farnsworth will have no choice but to admit our accomplishments and recommend us for knighthood.”
Sestian’s stance and the set of his eyes conveyed an intensity Eric admired and feared. He sighed aloud. “All right. You win, but we say nothing. If Trog and Farnsworth found out, they’d roll us in dragon dung and set us on fire.”
Sestian punched Eric playfully on the arm and smiled, wide. “Ha! I knew I could break you.”
They hurried from the music room and fell in with other students leaving classrooms. In the sunlit courtyard, Eric stopped short. Sestian plowed into him from behind.
Eric gritted his teeth. “Do you not see who is standing in front of us?”
Sestian turned his gaze to their masters leaning against the balustrade, their arms folded to their chests, waiting. “Great. Let me handle this.”
Trog stood upright and adjusted the sword on his hip, flexing the intersecting scars on his arms—reminders of dozens of battles fought. He took a step forward, and a gust of wind blew his dark hair back from his weathered, sun-darkened face, exposing a high forehead, square jaw, and intense peridot eyes. Eric gulped as a childhood tale about a sly mouse captured by a blind owl scampered through his brain.
“You’re late,” Trog said, tossing Eric a suede satchel weighed down with sheathed knives. “Where have you been?” He spoke softly, but his voice reverberated through the crisp morning air.
“Listening to Magister Timan’s lecture on ceremonial magic,” Sestian replied. “Did you know there are magical portals that allow us to travel between realms?”
“Did you know I have a magical foot that can disappear up your backside if you don’t get down to the stables right now?”
Farnsworth asked. His brow furrowed beneath a curtain of wavy straw-colored hair. He walked toward Sestian, the seams of his green tunic strained over his wide shoulders, his eyes as brown and penetrating as a wolf’s.
“So I’ve heard. Several times.” Sestian grinned and tapped Eric on the arm. “We’ll get together later and go over what we learned today, eh?”
Eric nodded and shuffled his feet under the weight of Trog’s stare. He waited for Sestian and Farnsworth to get far enough away before lifting his head and meeting Trog’s gaze. The knight lifted a brow.
“Are you going to tell me where you really were, or are you going to hold to your story that you were listening to a lecture that ended this time yesterday?”
“Which one will get me in the least amount of trouble?”
Trog placed his hand on Eric’s back and edged him down the stone steps to the lower courtyard. “The truth, Eric. Always the truth.”
“What if I promised not to tell?”
“Secrets are grave burdens to bear.”
“I can’t betray his confidence, sir. I promised.”
Trog nodded. “Then you’ll sleep in the stables tonight as punishment.”
“What? How is that fair?”
“You know the rules as my squire, and you still choose to withhold the truth. Therefore, you shall be punished accordingly.”
“But the rules of knighthood require I not reveal confidences or secrets under any circumstance to anyone at anytime, even under pain of death.”
“Nice try, lad, but the last time I looked, you have not been captured nor are you under pain of death.” Trog placed a heavy hand on Eric’s shoulder. “I’m going to give you one more chance. What will it be?”
Eric clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides. “With all due respect, sir, I cannot and will not betray my friend.”
Trog removed his hand. “I commend you on your loyalty, son, but you have made your choice. Therefore, you will suffer the consequences of it. Now go on and get busy with your chores. I want each of those blades in your hand sharpened and polished by morning—”
“And for protesting when you should not, you will also sharpen and polish Sir Farnsworth’s blades. I’ll see to it they are dropped off.” Eric opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind when Trog dipped his brow in warning. “Would you like me to add Sir Gowran’s and Sir Crohn’s weapons to your load?”
Eric bit back the irritation boiling below the surface. “No, sir.”
“Very well. Bring the blades to the farrier’s stall in the morning around eight. It will be a dual-fold meeting as you can visit your father at the same time.”
Trog paused for a moment, his expression thoughtful, then turned and strolled across the courtyard. He hoisted a young page from a game of marbles and lectured him on the pitfalls of wasting time. Eric snorted at the boy’s bewildered expression and the speed at which he ran once set down upon his feet. Been there, boy. He cursed beneath his breath. What am I talking about? I’m still there.
Eric’s boots clicked on the cobblestones as he plodded toward Crafter’s Row. He passed beneath the archway connecting the cathedral to the knights’ quarters and turned left down the tree-shaded lane toward the royal stables. After informing the stablemaster of his upcoming sleeping arrangements, Eric returned the way he came. At the crossroad, he turned and made his way toward the smithy. Horses clomped and wagons rattled over the pavers while thick clouds gathered overhead, suffocating the sun. A light drizzle set in as he entered a stone building marked by a metal plate engraved with a hammer and anvil. The blacksmith wiped the sweat from his brow and motioned Eric to a table set with vials of oils, and various whetstones.
Eric sighed. Lovely.
He settled into the monotonous task of sharpening and polishing, taking on Farnsworth’s load a few hours later. He finished his arduous task just after dusk. Cursing his sore muscles, he
packed up the satchels and shuffled to the stables where a plate of bread, cheese and a pint of goat’s milk waited for him.
Great. Is he trying to starve me, too?
He ate what was given and settled into the hayloft, his stomach a knot of protests. He sighed. Who was this paladin, and from who or what was he destined to save the realm? There was only one way to find out. Tomorrow he and Sestian would devise a plan, and it would be worthy of a knight’s tale. When all was said and done, Trog would have no other choice than to see him as a worthy knight instead of an incompetent fool. An image of Trog groveling for forgiveness appeared in his mind. Eric snuggled into a bed of hay and fell into a blissful dream, a wide grin on his face.
Your time is nigh. Be brave.
David stood with eyes closed; his palms pressed flat to the shower walls. In time, the haunting words that hijacked his dreams dissolved and washed down the drain. He banged his fist against the knob, turned off the water, and stepped into the steamy bathroom. An offhand glance toward the mirror set his mind on edge.
A whispered expletive escaped his lips as he wiped a thin layer of moisture from the glass. He stared at his reflection, confusion and sleepiness riddling his comprehension. Running his fingers across his chest, he probed a dark tattoo of a bull standing on its hind legs, an eagle perched on its head, wings spread. A Celtic braid entwined with ivy circled the animals like a shield. His stomach clenched. The tattoo hadn’t been there when he’d gone to sleep. “What the hell?” David soaped up a washcloth and scrubbed the blotch, but it refused to budge.
His pulse raced.
Inside his dressing room, he rummaged through the cedar drawers and color-coded hangers, clothes flying everywhere. “Crap! Where are they?”
David spun around and honed in on the laundry basket sitting on the half-moon leather seat. He dumped it over like a wild dog scouring for scraps. Moments later, he scrambled into his room clad in a pair of jeans, sneakers, and a white sweatshirt with the words Air Force emblazoned in blue letters across the front.
Phone, phone. Where did I leave my phone?
He scanned the room in which he’d grown up. The Tinkertoys, Nerf basketballs, and glow-in-the-dark stars of his youth had been replaced over the years with posters of F-22 Raptors, archery and track trophies, and an entertainment zone that would make the most serious gamer, music lover, and movie freak, drool with envy.
Where did I put it? Think!
He swept back the dark strands falling into his eyes. His memory jogged. He’d sent a midnight text. He leaped on the carved antique bed and uncovered his lifeline to the world buried in the folds of his burgundy comforter. He fell back and pushed the number one.
A sleepy voice answered after four rings. “Hel-lo?”
“David? Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Yeah, it’s seven thirty-three. I need you to come over. Something’s happened. I’ll open the door for you, but be quiet. Lily’s still asleep.”
“Wha—? No. Go back to sleep. I’ll call you later.”
“No, Char!” David bolted upright. “Please, don’t hang up! It’s important. I swear it. Please.”
A long pause followed. “Oh, all right,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute, but this better be good.”
He ran his palm across his chest. “You have no idea. See you in a few. You remember the code to the gate, right?”
“Duuuh.” Her sigh swelled in his ear. “You owe me, David Heiland.”
David stuffed the phone into his pocket and stretched his Aviator Rolex over his wrist.
Outside, several crows squawked in agitation, the noise incessant and loud.
“What is their problem?”
He rolled off the bed and crossed the room, the floorboards creaking beneath his feet. Cold January air blasted over him as he flung open the double doors to the balcony. Perched above him on a thick snow-covered branch were no less than a dozen crows, their wings flared, their beady eyes focused on something behind the house. David craned his neck to see what had their feathers ruffled, but saw nothing more than bare tree limbs and a snow-dusted roof.
“Stupid birds. Get out of here.” He threw a couple of snowballs in their direction. The birds scattered, protesting as they flew beneath the canopy of naked oaks branching over the driveway. Beyond the iron gates, a row of five houses lined up along the east side of Chestnut Circle—minuscule sentries and rooks facing off against the encroaching Cherokee National Forest. Charlotte’s house was the third one in, and she was nowhere in sight.
Come on, Char.
David slipped downstairs, and unlocked the front doors, then returned to the bottom step of the staircase, and waited. Ten tortuous minutes passed before the door opened and Charlotte stepped inside. She removed her white, puffy coat and crocheted cap, spilling coffee-brown hair over her light blue sweater to her hips. David’s heart fluttered as she flicked him a smile.
“Hey, Firefox.” His heart leaped at the special nickname she’d given him in third grade.
No one else was allowed to use it.
“What’s got your boxers in a bunch?”
Other than the smell of your hair and the way your smile turns me into jelly? The stray thought stunned him into momentary silence. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll tell you in a minute. Come on.”]
Charlotte followed him up the staircase that curved to the second floor, her eyes fixed on the gigantic Christmas tree brushing the banister. “I thought you said you were going to get rid of this thing before school starts on Monday?”
“Yeah, I might have said that.”
“Only if you have the hotline number to dial-a-servant.”
“I don’t believe you just said that.”
“Whatever.” At the top of the stairs, David glanced over his right shoulder at his godmother’s closed door. With a finger to his lips, they tiptoed across the landing to David’s room and closed the door.
“You know, sometimes you can be such a snob.” Charlotte tossed her coat and hat on the beanbag and sat on the edge of his bed.
David picked up Charlotte’s belongings and placed them on a chair. “Yeah, so you keep telling me. Can we focus here? I have a serious problem.”
“So said the frantic voice on the phone. What gives?”
David took a deep breath. There was no way to explain other than to show her. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head. “This,” he said, pointing to the new addition on his chest.
He stood half-naked in front of her. Had it been any other time, any other circumstance like in one of his dreams, he would have appreciated, even welcomed the holy-crap-oh-my-God, Cheshire cat grin on her face. As it was, he wished she’d quit staring and say something, anything to make him feel less exposed.
She rose from the bed and chuckled. “Oh my gosh. I don’t believe it. You got a tat.” She traced the mark with her fingertips.
Her touch surged like warm currents through his body. David swallowed and pulled the sweatshirt back over his head in hopes she didn’t notice the goosebumps spreading across his flesh.
“What happened to being afraid of needles and catching the plague?” Charlotte asked.
“Still there,” David said.
She sat back down. “So why did you do it?”
Charlotte smiled. “Your chest disagrees.”
David pulled the sweatshirt over his head. “I woke up like this.”
Charlotte laughed. “Right, and I suppose the tattoo fairies came in your room in the middle of the night and inked it there.” Her blue eyes twinkled. “Come on. Wipe away the scowl and tell me what happened. Did you do it on a dare?”
“No,” David said. “Didn’t you hear me? I. Didn’t. Do. This.”
“Oh, come on. It’s me, David. Tattoos don’t appear out of thin air.”
“This one did, and it’s not the only thing that showed up without explanation.” He pulled an open sketchpad from beneath a stack of books on his desk and handed it to her. “Check this out. I drew it yesterday.”
A black dragon with small horns and merciless cat-like eyes clung to a castle’s battlement. A boy bearing a striking resemblance to David was clutched in one talon. Crouched in the shadows were a man and a woman, terror etched on their faces.
Charlotte stammered. “David, this-this is amazing. Creepy, but amazing. The detail is incredible. Who are these two people?”
“My parents. Look.” David plucked two framed pictures from the nightstand. “You can see the resemblance.”
“Holy cow. This is whacked.” She glanced sideways at him, her eyebrows pinched. “When did you do this?”
“Yesterday, after Lily and I got back from visiting my parents’ graves.” David put the photographs back and sat beside her, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together. “The bad thing is, I don’t even remember drawing it.”
“All I remember is sitting down to draw and then signing my name to the bottom. Everything in between is a blank, like last night. I don’t remember leaving the house. I don’t know if I walked or drove or if I let someone in.” There was a strained silence. David took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’m scared, Char. What’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know,” she said, rubbing his back, “but we’ll figure it out.”
David stared at the floor, his nerves stretched tight like a rubber band waiting to snap. Charlotte’s presence was the only thing keeping him from breaking. With her, he was complete, like he’d found a missing piece to a puzzle. If only he could tell her how he felt. If only--
A branch splintered and crashed onto the balcony with a heavy thud. A diminutive but forceful, “Ouch!” followed.
Charlotte jumped. “Who said that?”
David stood, his gaze fixed on the balcony doors. Your time is nigh. Be brave. He shook the words from his head and took a deep breath.
“There’s someone out there,” Charlotte whispered. “I can see the shadow through the curtains.”
“I know.” David moved around the edge of the bed to the loveseat, opened a black case, and removed a longbow. He wrapped his fingers around the leather grip and pulled an arrow from the quiver.
“Really?” Charlotte quipped.
“Someone just dropped onto my balcony from a tree,” he said. “You think I’m going out there unarmed?”
“Don’t you have a bat?”
“I’m an archer, Charlotte, not a baseball player.”
“And whatever that is is not a paper target.”
David snorted. “Thanks for your overwhelming confidence in me.”
“Hey, I’m just saying, but please. Go on, Sir Robin Hood. Go for it. Do your thing. Lady Marian awaits your victory.”
David ignored the quip and crept forward. With a deep breath, he flung open the doors.
A patch of rust-brown corduroy sailed over the railing. Footsteps pounded the porch below.
“Whoa! Did you see that? He just jumped!”
David ran back inside, scrambled over his bed and out his bedroom door.
“Who did?” Charlotte asked, following behind.
“I don’t know. Some short little dude.”
David barreled down the stairs and out the front door, Charlotte on his heels.
“There!” she said. “Darting between the trees!”
David took off down the long drive, the cold air stinging his cheeks and burning his throat. The stout figure, no more than three feet tall, ran faster, his shape blurring with the surroundings.
“He’s getting away,” Charlotte said a few feet behind David.
David willed his legs to go faster. Up ahead, the trespasser turned sideways and slipped through the narrow bars of the gate without slowing down. “What the—”
David skidded to a stop and typed in the security code on the control box. The motor engaged. The giant scrolling black rails churned open.
He blew into his freezing hands. “Come on, damn it. A sloth moves faster than this.”
Ten. Eleven. Twelve seconds passed before David slipped through the opening and onto the cul-de-sac. His breath hung in plumes above his head. Two houses down, old lady Fenton, a spidery old woman with crooked fingers and waist-length strands of silver hair as fine as mist, shuffled back to her house with a newspaper tucked under her arm. There was no sign of the mysterious stranger.
Charlotte jogged up behind him breathing hard. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know.” David bent over, his hands on his knees. “I’ve never seen anything move that fast in my life. And how did he—I mean—did you see him pass through the rails? It’s like he morphed or something.”
“Impossible,” Charlotte said.
“What? Didn’t you see it?” “Yes, but there has to be—”
A limb in the giant oak tree above them groaned. David turned his face skyward as the branch splintered.
“Get out of the way!” He shoved Charlotte into his neighbor’s yard, slipped on a patch of ice, and hit the sidewalk with a thud.
The wood missile plummeted toward the ground.
“David, look out!” He rolled out of the way just as the limb hit the pavement.
David swallowed, hard. His heart beat like a jackhammer. “Holy crap!” He stood and brushed the snow off his jeans.
Deep laughter boomed from his left. “Sidewalk slide out from beneath you there, son?”
Mr. Loudermilk from next door stood on the stoop of his house, his mouth twisted in a sadistic grin.
Very funny, you nutter.
David dusted himself off, frowning at the lanky old man’s brown plaid pants and purple striped shirt. His white hair was wilder than usual, standing on end like he’d rubbed his head with a hundred inflated latex balloons. His gaze fixed on David like a buzzard’s to fresh road kill. David’s insides gnarled. How the real-life Indiana Jones archeologist turned history teacher had turned into such a fruitcake he’d never know. It was if a switch turned off in his head toward the end of August and never turned back on. Whatever. It didn’t matter, so long as Mr. Loudermilk stayed on his side of the hedges, everything would be right with the world.
David stood and pulled Charlotte up. “You okay? No bones broken?”
She glanced up at the tree, then back down to the remnant blocking the sidewalk. “I don’t know about you, but that was a little too close for me.”
Out of the corner of his eye, a red flash caught David’s attention. The small figure darted across the lawn and around the backside of his house. “Holy crap, he’s in my yard!”
David and Charlotte bolted over the limb and ran up the drive. “Geez, how does he move so fast?” Charlotte said.
“I don’t know, but it’s getting away. Let’s go!”
They took off together, rounding the mansion. The mini Flash Gordon disappeared into the forest.
“Oh, no, you don’t!”
David broke into a full run, his track training kicking in. He dashed past the greenhouse and the overseer’s cottage, leaping over fallen trees. Twigs and leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Branches snapped. Birds took flight. Charlotte yelled for him to stop, but he kept running, the cold air burning his nose and throat.
To the north, he made out the Antylles River rushing toward Lake Sturtle. A flash of red zoomed off to his right. David turned, zigzagging past trees, leaping over boulders. Sweat beaded on his brow despite the cold stinging his skin. He shed his coat, leaving it on the ground behind him. The trickle of a creek grew closer. He ran, faster, faster, until he reached the embankment of Wilder Creek. Out of breath, he pressed his palms to his knees and scanned the forest. On the opposite embankment stood a young doe, alert and unsure, her ears twitching. A rabbit darted off to his right. A squirrel scampered up a tree. Charlotte rushed up behind him and hunched over, out of breath and holding her side.
“Did—you—not—hear—me?” She staggered forward. “I—called to you—”
Behind David came a sound akin to hundreds of spiders crashing through the underbrush. David turned as a reddish-brown blur no more than three feet high barreled toward him at lightning speed. “David! Move!” Charlotte shoved David, knocking him several feet back. He tumbled to the ground with an oomph.
And then she was gone.
“Noooo!” Charlotte screamed in one long, sustained note as the creature carried her off. Her voice grew further away. “Daaa-viiid!”
David scrambled to his feet and half-ran, half-slid down the slippery slope and across the rope bridge toward her voice, his heart racing, and his throat burning. “I’m coming, Char!”
She screamed from the darkness of the old gristmill ruins. David vaulted over fallen trees and slipped as he swerved around a corner. Down he went, careening to the bottom of the creek. Covered in muck, he darted around the dilapidated water wheel, feeling along the vine-covered walls of the mill until his fingers found an opening. Charlotte sat inside in a heap against the wall.
“Char!” David skidded to a stop beside her, panting. “Char, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She grimaced as she pulled her left leg to her chest.
“Which way did he go?”
Charlotte pointed to her right. “The doorway. I’m sure he’s gone by now.” Her hand clasped around his wrist as he jerked to leave. “He’s gone. Don’t bother going after him.”
David collapsed beside her, counting backward from ten in his head to calm his pulse. “Did you get a good look at him?”
Charlotte shook her head. “No. He moved so fast. Everything was all a blur. He had a very distinct voice, though. Scottish or Irish, I think.”
David leaned forward, his arms perched on his drawn-up knees. “He spoke to you?”
“Not me, I don’t think.” Charlotte lifted her hip to one side and withdrew a broken brick from beneath her, then tossed it across the room blanketed in dead vegetation. “It was more like he was angry at himself for failing to get you. He said the strangest word that sounded like ‘Figbiggin,’ followed by a very angry, ‘Missed!’ Then he dumped me here and took off.”
David laid his forehead on his arms folded across his knees. “Who is he? What does he want with me? I don’t understand.”
The Star Wars Imperial March blasted from Charlotte’s coat pocket. “Oh, geez! Not now.” She answered, her tone a bit terse. “Hi, Daddy—at David’s—but I’m not hungry—but— okay, fine. I’ll be there in a minute.”
She hung up and turned to David. “Sorry. I have to go. We have to do the ritualistic Saturday morning breakfast thing with my aunt and uncle. Are you going to be okay? You want me to see if you can come along?”
David shook his head. “Nah. I’m good. Let’s get you home.”
They hiked back the way they came, and down the street to Charlotte’s small brick house nestled in a bevy of bare dogwood trees at the bottom of a gentle slope. A birdbath surrounded by mangled, winter-ravaged flowers stood in the front yard. A maroon SUV sat in the driveway. A tall man with square shoulders and a jawline to match opened the driver door and got out. He wore that I’m-retired-military-and-you-better-not-mess-with-my-daughter look.
Yeah, that one.
David gulped. “What took you so long?” Mr. Stine said, “and why are you such a mess?”
David jumped in. “It’s my fault, sir. I suggested we take a walk down to the old grist mill and we sort of fell.”
“Um-hmm,” Mr. Stine said, he steely eyes pinned to David. “And you just happened to fall on my daughter in the mud?”
“Yes, sir, I mean no, sir. I mean I did, but not on purpose, sir.” Damn, why couldn’t he shut up?
“Daddy, leave him alone, Charlotte said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.” She pecked David on the cheek. “I’ll come over as soon as I get back.” She cast her dad a look, then ran into the house. David turned to head home.
“That’s my little girl, there, young man,” Mr. Stine said. “You disrespect her in any way, and you’ll have me to deal with.”
David gulped. “Yes, sir. I understand, sir.”
His stomach fluttered. How, after all the years he’d been friends with Charlotte, was her father still able to set his nerves on edge?
David trudged home, his nerves like a bundle of fireworks ready to explode. He headed up his driveway, his eyes darting about, taking in the gargantuan three-story Civil War mansion with black shutters and more massive white columns than a house deserved.
His stomach knotted, as it often did, at the sight of his house—so grand, so majestic, and yet so empty. His wish to have a typical family like Charlotte’s was nothing more than a dream. He wished for it anyway, and then chuckled at the absurdity of it all. He wasn’t a child anymore. The days of bargaining with God to bring back his parents were gone. After all, God didn’t negotiate. Dead was dead.
David climbed the steps of the porch and went inside, the heavy doors closing behind him. An ivory-colored envelope skittered across the floor in a slight undercurrent and came to rest at the curled feet of an antique side table. He picked up the crinkled parchment and read the single name written in sprawling calligraphy across the front.
The unmistakable aroma of brewed coffee enticed him down the long corridor beneath the double staircase toward the rear of the house. The morning news droned from the flat screen above the stone fireplace in the family room. Muted daylight spilled in through the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the manicured backyard and greenhouse. He tossed the letter on the breakfast bar as Lily pushed through the pantry door carrying a bag of potatoes. She glanced at him and set her load in the sink. “Good morning,” she said.
David set his bow and arrow beside the fireplace and took a seat at the breakfast bar.
Lily twisted her thick cherry hair with both hands and tacked it to the back of her head with a clip. How the weight of those locks didn’t tilt her off-balance, David never figured out. She poured a cup of coffee. “So, what’s with the bow?”
David considered telling her about the speedy man for a moment but then changed his mind. There was no way she’d believe such a story. “Nothing. I thought I’d go out and practice later.”
Lily raised one eyebrow and remotely turned off the television. “With one arrow?”
David poured a cup of coffee. “Less to lose, I suppose.”
“Uh-huh,” Lily said. “Why was Charlotte here?”
David’s stomach lurched. Do those funky turquoise eyes see everything? “No reason. We were just talking.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Talking? It sounded like a half dozen bowling balls thudding down the stairs.”
“Sorry. We didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I’m not asking for an apology, honey, just some consideration. I was up late last night.”
“Someone have a baby?”
Lily rubbed her eyes and yawned. “Yes. The Padgetts. A little girl, around 3:30 this morning.”
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Lily smiled and tousled his hair. “It’s all right. I needed to get up anyway. I have to run into town a little later and pick up some supplies from the hardware store. We’re due for a bad snowstorm in a couple of days, and I want to be prepared. Which reminds me, when you’re done with breakfast and target practice or whatever it is you’re really doing with that bow and one arrow, I’d like you bring up some firewood from the shed, and start taking down the Christmas decorations.”
David rolled his eyes.
“I saw that, young man.” Lily stood. “Tomorrow is the last day of winter break, and I need the bulk of the decorations down before you go back to school. You promised.”
“Ah, come on, Lily,” David said. “Why not hire some people to do it? It’s not like we can’t afford full-time staff to help with this sort of thing. Everyone knows there are tons of people out there who need a job. We’d be doing humanity a great service.”
“As a part of humanity, you need to learn responsibility, David. You can’t go through life thinking the world owes you any favors because of who you are or what you have. Trust me. It’s not going to hurt you to do the few things I ask.” Lily poured a glass of orange juice and slid it his way. “Tell you what, why don’t you invite some friends over and make a party out of it. I’ll pick up some sodas while I’m out. You can order pizza.”
David buried his head in his arms folded on the counter. “Sure. Whatever.”
“So, what is this?” Lily slid the envelope toward herself, the sound grating in David’s ears. He lifted his head as she flipped the envelope over from one side to the other. Her brow furrowed.
“This is rather cryptic. No return address. No stamp.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Recognize the writing?”
“No, not at all. That’s what makes it more intriguing, eh?”
Lily smiled at him, winked, and ripped open the envelope, withdrawing a single page from inside. Her fingers touched her lips. The color drained from her face.
David stiffened. “Lily? What’s wrong?”
She shook her head and folded the letter in half. “Nothing.” Her voice trembled. “Just some unexpected news, that’s all.” She shimmied around the bar and hurried down the hall toward the foyer. David followed her to the library, but the stained glass doors shut and locked in his face.
He jiggled the door handle. “Lily, what’s going on? What’s wrong?”
He could hear her scurrying around inside. He banged on the door. “Lily!”
A few minutes later the door opened, and Lily headed back to the kitchen, her lips stretched into a fine line, her hands empty.
“Hey,” David said, following on her heels. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”
“I need to take your car.” She collected her coat, purse, and gloves from the coat rack. “The heat in my car is out again.”
“Sure. You want me to come with?”
She opened the back door and took his keys from the rack. “No.”
His protest fell on a closed door. The rumble of his 1967 Shelby fastback filled his ears. David ran to the front door and watched the black Mustang pass through the gates and disappear. He turned to the library. What is she hiding in there?
He pushed open the double doors and stepped into the room rich in leather furnishings and mahogany bookshelves jammed with books. Some were so old he was afraid to touch them for fear they would disintegrate in his hands. With a push of a button on the wall, red velvet drapes, both upstairs and down, slid open, exposing a wall of windows stacked two stories high. Sunlight warmed the oiled portraits on the walls. David straightened the baseball cap on the suit of armor and wove around the plush wingback chairs to the antique desk carved with mermen, tritons, and sea creatures.
“All right. Think. If I were a mysterious letter, where would Lily hide me?”
David rummaged through the drawers and papers. Nothing. He panned the room, honing in on a small, curl-footed, single-drawer table tucked into an alcove under the spiral staircase. He hurried across the room and gave it a quick tug. Locked.
David bit the corner of his lip then snapped his fingers. He bolted upstairs to Lily’s office, and from a hook inside a door hidden by a mirror in the closet, he grabbed an antique key ring heavy with brass keys and returned to the library. One after the other he tried them in the lock. The next to the last one popped the drawer open. David reached inside and withdrew a necklace with a heart-shaped lapis pendant, a small, dark-blue leather jewelry box, and the crinkled envelope. His stomach flip-flopped.
He turned the necklace over in his palm. “Why would she leave this? She never takes this off.” He set it down on the table and picked up the box. The voice from the dream returned.
Your time is nigh. Be brave.
He cast aside the voice and flipped open the box. A black sickness filled his stomach. “What the hell?”
Perched inside upon a bed of dark blue velvet sat a man’s ring. A wide band of intricate scrolled silver held a dime-size lapis lazuli stone. Carved in its center was an eagle, its wings spread, perched on the head of a bull standing on its hind legs.
His gut lurched as if missing a step going downstairs. That’s my tattoo! He touched his fingers to his chest.
An overwhelming ache, an intense desire, drew him toward the ring. He needed it, craved it like a junkie needs a fix. He bit his bottom lip and drummed his fingers on his thighs trying hard to ignore it, but the pull grew stronger, more intense as if drawn by a magnetic force. Unable to resist, David slipped the ring on the forefinger of his right hand.
A searing pain, like his skin being scorched from the inside out, shot like an arrow up his arm and hurled into the tattoo. David staggered forward, his hand clutched to his chest. He fell to the floor, upending a small table, and gasped for breath. Sweat poured from his brow. In the mirror over the fireplace, he caught a glimpse of himself and the blue glow beneath his clothes. He ripped off his sweatshirt. Both the ring and tattoo blazed an ice blue, two objects shimmering as one. The tattoo sank deeper into his skin, burning like a branding iron.
“Ahhhh! Make it stop!”
David bent in half, begging, crying for the pain to leave him. After what seemed an eternity, it subsided and let him go. He crawled to the table, snatched the letter and Lily’s necklace, and then collapsed into the closest overstuffed chair.
Time passed with the speed of a turtle pushing a rock uphill. Question after question exploded across his tattered mind.
Breathless, David sat forward and withdrew the page from the crumpled envelope. Waves of nausea overtook him as the words reached into his subconscious, grabbing something he’d always felt was there but was never quite able to touch.
My dearest Lysbeth,
Please forgive my quick hand, but time is short, and the danger here grows stronger every day. It is difficult to recognize friend from foe, and I grow more convinced as time passes that Fallhollow sits on the brink of collapse. There are rumors that the Council is ready to turn elsewhere for our salvation. The thought torments me, for as much as his father and I wish to see our son, it pains me to think of David here, forced into the Council’s servitude. The risk to his life is too great, yet I am no fool. It is inevitable. His time in Havendale is drawing to a close. Until the time he must leave, please keep him safe and sheltered in your love.
With deep affection.
There was no signature.
The words zoomed away from him, receding into a long black tunnel. His lips and hands trembled. The letter floated to the floor. His phone rang. He answered without speaking.
“David?” Charlotte said. “Are you there? Are you okay?”
He blinked and gasped for air, unaware until he did so he’d been holding his breath. He swallowed hard. An invisible fist clenched his throat and squeezed. Somehow he found the ability to speak. “I-it’s my parents. They’re not dead.”