This book has been delayed for several reasons, life being the main one. The other is that I realized once I finished the rough draft that the beginning just wasn’t right. So I went back and have been completely rewriting the opening third or so of the novel. It feel right now. That means the work is coming easier and it should be going to the editor in another couple of weeks. As with other snippets posted on this site, this is a rough draft. Don’t be surprised if you find placeholders for names or places. They are there to help me remember to go back to the story bible and confirm spellings, etc. By the time the book goes to publication, it will be edited and so the final version very well be different from what you see here. Copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green. All rights reserved. You know the drill.
Fallon neared the Citadel’s main gates and slowed his mount. Eyes narrowed, he watched as two guards stepped forward. As his horse paced forward, the knight glanced at the walls. The sight of several archers taking aim on him both reassured and worried him. His concern deepened as he realized the main gate had yet to be opened for the day’s business. Was that an indication the Order’s leadership knew of the watcher in the trees or was there more going on than he knew?
Important as that was, he had other things on his mind as well. Knowing he would soon be able to have a hot bath, hot food and a bed with clean sheets had pushed him to ride throughout the night. He did not mind roughing it on the trail but he had spent most of the last year and a half doing just that. If he did not have to leave the Citadel for a while, he would not argue. Besides, he had ridden hard the last week, stopping only when his mount needed rest. Something had driven him back to the Citadel, a sense of urgency he still felt.
Almost as important as that sense of urgency was the knowledge he would soon be reunited with Cait. How hard it had been to leave her so soon after rescuing her from that thrice-damned tavern master in Lineaus. He had known she would be safe at the Citadel just as he knew the Adept would look after her. But he had wanted to be there as she began her studies. Now he looked forward to learning how she had fared during his absence.
The thought of the young woman brought with it the memory of her letters and he relaxed slightly. Throughout all those long months away from the Citadel, he had worried Cait would resent him for leaving her. He was supposed to be her mentor and yet he had not been there for her. Yet none of the resentment he feared had been present in her letters. Instead, they had been filled with details about her new life at the Citadel, her excitement about her studies and a sense of wonder as she made friends. Through the letters, Fallon saw how Cait had grown, how she became more settled with her new life. The scared, suspicious girl she had been had grown into a young woman dedicated to the Order and her friends, someone who obviously thirsted for knowledge. He reveled in knowing that all had gone well for her even as he wished he had been there to see it all unfold.
“Welcome home, Sir Fallon,” one of the guards said as Fallon stopped his horse in front of the gate.
For a moment, Fallon studied the young man. There was something familiar about him but he could not quite place it. Then he smiled. The months had added height and muscle to journeyman. Damon no longer looked the almost frail youngster he had been when Fallon left.
“It is good to be back, Damon.” Fallon swung his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground. As he did, he winced slightly. He was getting too old to ride day after day, not to mention a few nights, to get home as quickly as possible. Almost as soon as his boots hit the ground, a yeoman approached and reached for the horse’s reins. “How fares everyone?”
“Just fine, sir. We are trying to adjust to a few changes since you were last home is all.” Damon turned and motioned for the gate to be opened. Before Fallon could ask him to explain, Damon motioned to a tall figure moving in their direction from inside the compound. “I shall leave it to Sir Stefan to explain.”
Things most definitely had changed. At least this was one change he could heartedly agree with. But how many other surprises awaited him?
“Fallon, it is good to see you!” Stefan pulled him into a friendly embrace and thumped his back in greeting.
“And it is good to see you, lad. But you’re not lad any longer, are you? When were you Confirmed?” He started to follow Stefan inside the gate and paused, looking back to the yeoman holding his horse. The girl quickly assured him she would have his belongings taken to his quarters and that she would personally see to the horse. He nodded and then turned his attention back to Stefan. “And who else was Confirmed with you?”
“At (XXX). Ric and Kala were also Confirmed as were several new clerics.” The young man smiled devilishly and Fallon narrowed his eyes. Stefan was hiding something. But what?
Two could play that game. Fallon had no doubt Stefan wanted him to ask what else had happened at the holy day ceremonies. Not that he would. He would wait and sooner or later Stefan would tell him. If not, he had other ways of finding out, something the young knight would do well to remember.
“I’m assigned as Kiernan’s assistant until I am Called elsewhere.”
Fallon nodded. It was a good assignment for the young man. Stefan had learned to ride almost before he had learned to walk. Pairing him with the riding master made sense. Add to that Stefan’s natural ability to teach youngsters who had never sat astride a mount of any sort before and it made even more sense.
“I’m proud of you, Stefan.” He smiled and then paused as the sounds of a yeomen’s class drilling nearby reached him. Their practice was punctuated with exclamations of relief and frustration as someone put them through their paces. Then, much to his surprise, he heard a familiar voice.
“Hold!” a woman ordered, her frustration clear. “If you lot don’t start paying attention to what you are doing, we will be here all day. I know it’s cold but that is no excuse. Ask any knight or cleric. You will spend many a night in cold camps and the enemy will not attack only when the weather is fair. So quit worrying about the fact there is a little snow falling from the sky and focus on making sure your partner doesn’t score a killing blow.”
Fallon would have bet his life that the woman speaking had been Cait. But that made no sense. She had been at the Citadel less than two years. He had seen first-hand her ability with a blade but that did not explain why she would be teaching a weapons class, even one for yeomen. Good as she might be, there was no way the weaponsmaster would put a journeywoman in as an instructor.
Turning, Fallon looked at Stefan in open question. The young man simply smiled. There could be no doubting he was enjoying himself. His eyes danced with mischief and Fallon ground his teeth in frustration before giving the young man a look that promised they would soon discuss how Stefan had held back this information. then Fallon hurried off in the direction of Cait’s voice. If no one would explain what was going on, he would find out for himself.
His report to the Knight-Commandant and the Adept would just have to wait.
A few moments later, Fallon slid to a halt outside the training arena. He stared in surprise at the sight that greeted him. Cait stood in the center of the packed dirt arena, a look of frustration on her face. In her right hand, she held a training sword. She wore black leather trousers, and a matching leather jerkin that left her arms bare. Intricately woven wide leather bands were in place on each wrist. Her heavy boots moved silently across the ground. Despite the way her breath fogged before her and snow fell, she seemed oblivious to the cold.
That much registered even as Fallon’s eyes were drawn to her forearms. Never before had he seen anything like the markings she bore and the implications rocked him. then, just as he thought he was beyond surprise, he felt the power surrounding her and he blew out a breath in surprise. He had known she was special from the moment he first saw her in that thrice-damned tavern but he had never expected this.
Before he could recover his wits, Cait turned and saw him. The frustration left her expression and she smiled gaily. Then she called for one of the senior journeymen working out in the next ring to take over for a moment. Before they could respond, she sprinted toward Fallon and Stefan. Fallon recovered enough to smile in approval as she agilely vaulted the three bar fence surrounding the training ring before she all but leapt at him in greeting.
“Fallon!” She grinned gaily before throwing her arms around him. “It’s so good to see you. When did you get back?”
“Just now.” He looked her up and down, amazed by the changes in her. She seemed so confident, so settled. Gone was the doubt and fear that had lingered in her eyes the last time they had been together. “And I can see we have a great deal to discuss.” He lightly touched her forearm where the Lady’s dolphin rose from the water. “But I must report to Kirris and Berral, so I can’t tarry any longer. Just answer me one question. When did this happen and what does our Knight-Commandant think about it?”
“That’s two questions, Fallon.” She laughed gaily and he shook his head. “And it will take more time to answer than you have right now. The very short answer is it happened at (XXX) when I stood for Confirmation and it surprised everyone, most of all me.” She smiled a little self-consciously and then shook her head. As she did, he realized she had had a difficult time accepting what happened. “Kirris and Berral will tell you more when you see them but, so you aren’t taken completely by surprise, I am the first Knight-Adept of the Order. I will explain more tonight over dinner if you’ll join me.”
“Of course, I’ll join you.” He smiled and gave her another hug before stepping back. “I’d best find Kirris and Berral before they send someone looking for me.”
“And I had best get back to my students.” With that, she turned and once more vaulted the fence.
Fallon shook his head, feeling more than a little bemused and confused, before making his way toward the administration building. As he did, he heard Cait once more calling for the yeoman to pay attention to what they were doing. This was a class, not a game. They needed to learn the basics or they would never be able to defend themselves in the field. Good advice but not what he expected to hear from here that morning.
Ten minutes later, entered the Knight-Commandant’s office. As he stepped inside, he nodded in greeting to both Kirris and Berral. The Adept smiled briefly in response from where she stood next to Kirris behind his desk, a distracted smile, before turning her attention to the dispatch she and Kirris had been obviously been studying before Fallon’s entrance. As for the Knight-Commandant, he simply motioned for Fallon to have a seat, not once taking his eyes from the dispatch on his desk.
Impatient though he might be, Fallon waited in silence. He knew them both well enough to know only something of grave import would cause them to keep him waiting to give his report. He also had no doubt they knew he would have questions about Cait. After all, every dispatch he had sent them had been filled with questions about the young woman he had taken as his ward. Those questions would be asked and answered but in due time. Business first.
“Welcome home, Fallon, and my pardon for keeping you waiting,” Kirris said a few minutes later. Despite his smile, Fallon saw the strain reflected on his expression and that only served to increase his own sense of foreboding.
“It is good to finally be back.” He stretched his long legs out before him, crossing his ankles. “And I have to admit to having a great number of questions for the two of you.”
“I take it you ran into Cait.” Berral’s expression no longer seemed distracted. In fact, there could be no mistaking her humor and pride as she waited for his answer.
“I did. I also ran into Stefan, who refused to explain what happened.”
“We shall do all we can to answer your questions after you make your report,” Kirris assured him.
Frustration filled Fallon despite the fact he knew the Knight-Commandant was right. His questions would have to wait, for a few minutes at least. However, no matter what the others thought, he would not leave the office until he had at least some sort of explanation for what he had seen.
“As agreed, I returned to the Arteris compound.”
For more than an hour, he discussed all he had done during his absence from the Citadel. While stationed at the compound, he, along with the others stationed there, had gone on the offensive against the raiders that had been plaguing the region. It had taken several months but he had finally identified their local contact. The new of who the traitor had been had rocked the region.
“That contact turned out to be a member of the local militia. His position in the militia make him privy to such information as what merchant trains carried the best goods or the most important passengers, not to mention what routes they would be taking.
“When we finally cornered him, he turned out to be a skinwalker. From what little we learned before he died, it appears someone is trying to unite the bandit leaders out of the Wastelands. Those who have joined the cause have pledged to follow Balaar and report to his human representative.” His distaste at such a notion roughened his voice. “Whoever this representative is, the skinwalker said he was not from the Wastelands. He also said other skinwalkers have been sent into the Imperium with orders to cause as much trouble as possible. They are, apparently, the first wave of a systematic attack against the Imperium and the Order.”
He leaned back and waited. He had seen the look that passed between Kirris and Berral when he mentioned the skinwalker. The fact they did not seem surprised worried him as did the possible explanations for their reactions. With each moment that passed, he became more convinced he had been gone too long from the Citadel.
“Once the skinwalker and those working with him had been dealt with, I left the compound and began the next par tof my mission. I traveled throughout the Imperium as well as the surrounding realms on this side of the Great and Black rivers. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn anything about Cait’s history. However, I did run across several more cases of slavery. Each was much like Cait’s story. They woke in a slaver’s tent, only to find themselves being sold to someone else. That person took them to farms or into villages where they worked.” He almost choked on the word. “Until I discovered them and freed them. Unlike Cait, however, they did remember who they were and I was able to return them to their families.”
“Did you learn nothing that might not help us?” Berral asked, disappointment clear in her voice.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “The one common thread these cases had was that their families were completely stunned to learn their loved one lived. Each had disappeared under circumstances that led the families to believe they had been killed.”
For a moment, no one said anything. Then Berral frowned, her expression hard. “That could be why no outcry was made when Cait went missing. Her family could believe she had been killed. While they mourned her death, she was fighting to survive her enslavement.”
“That could be what happened,” Kirris said. “And those responsible for taking the others as well as those enslaving them?”
“Turned over to the local authorities for punishment. The local compounds have made it clear that the Codes must be upheld and I made sure the locals understood my report would not only reach the Citadel but would be forwarded to the Imperium’s council as well.”
“Your report tends to confirm some of the rumors that have reached us as well as certain happenings near here.” Kirris leaned back and Fallon looked at him in concern. In that moment, the Knight-Commandant looked as if he had aged decades in the months Fallon had been gone. “The council needs to hear your full report. You have until morning to prepare. Once the council has met, I shall send word to the capital. In the meantime, I shall issue orders to have squads readied to leave. I fear we need to tighten our border patrols.”
“No worries, Kirris. I’ll be ready.” Truth be told, he could give the report then. But the need for food and rest might cause him to miss something. “Before we get to anything else, can you explain what you meant when you said tis explains what has been happening near here?” He would not push if the Knight-Commandant did not respond. There were other ways of finding out.
“Let me,” Berral said. Then, instead of continuing, she took time to refill Fallon’s mug as well as her own. “You saw Cait, so you saw her markings.”
“Very simply put, she was one of a dozen to stand for Confirmation at the holy day. As always, some stood for the knightly discipline and some for the priestly. Then there was Cait.
“You know from our letters as well as from hers that we had been cross-training her. We did it because she showed no distinct Calling for either discipline. Because of that, when it came time for her to stand for Confirmation, she was tested in both disciplines. The council chose to do it that way in the hope the Lord and Lady would reveal what They planned for her. We weren’t prepared for what happened.”
For the next half hour, Fallon listened closely as Berral and Kirris took turns describing the Confirmation trials. With each passing moment, his disbelief grew. He could not remember a time when someone had been allowed to stand for Confirmation with less than two years’ study having been undertaken. Nor could he remember anyone ever having stood for Confirmation in both disciplines. He had recognized Cait was special the first time he saw her. Hidden beneath the dirt and grime, cloaked by the filthy hair she let fall over her face like a mask, had been a power unlike any he had ever felt. Even now, almost two years later, he wondered at it. He held close his promise to find out what happened to bring her into the hands of slavers and he swore to do whatever it took to make sure no one else suffered as she had. But to hear how she had stood against all on the Confirmation field was much more than he expected.
“Fallon, if you had seen her, you would understand everything she did that day made it clear she is something special to the Order. She truly is a combination of both disciplines. More than that, she performed at a level that, had she been Confirmed into the knightly discipline, it would have been difficult not to name her a knight-commander. From what I saw and from what Berral has said, it is the same had she been Confirmed into the priestly discipline,” Kirris said.
Feeling as though he had to be dreaming, Fallon stood and, with his mug in hand, walked across the office to stare out the window. Cait had managed to out-fight Alicia, Kirris and others before finally facing off against Kirris. She had managed to turn aside the Knight-Commandant’s magical attacks with her own. Clearly, she had come a very long way in his absence. But that much?
“So,” Berral said when Fallon returned to his chair. “We created the new rank for her. She is now the Knight-Adept and third in command of the Order behind Kirris and myself. She works with both of us on a daily basis so we can discvoer the full extent of her powers as well as give her the experience she needs in case she has to step in for one or the other of us.”
“And the other members of the council?”
Kirris chuckled then and there was a touch of self-deprication in it Fallon recognized. “None dared object. How could they when the Lord and Lady made their favor of Cait so evident? None of the rest of us have been blessed with Their markings in the way she has. Each of those who have examined the markings have said the same thing. They resonate with the power of the Lord and Lady. While it would be nice to know what They have in mind for Cait and for the rest of us, we will do as we always have. We will accept Their challenges and Their blessings and continue to do Their bidding.”
“As is our duty and our honor,” Fallon said and the others nodded in agreement. “But there is more.”
“There is.” Kirris once more looked serious enough to cause Fallon concern. “But that can wait. Know that Cait did much as she did on the trail with you when you were bringing her here. Her actions helped save the squad she was out with and let us know Balaar had his skinwalkers, at least one of them, in this region.”
Fallon blew out a breath and shook his head. It seemed there was much they still had to discuss.
“Go rest for a few hours, my friend. Then join us for the noon meal. We will continue our discussion then,” Berral said as she gently drew him to his feet. “But know you have served the Order and the Lord and Lady well, not only with the information you gathered during this last mission but in bringing Cait to us.”
“I have a feeling I will have many more questions by then.”
“So will we, I’m sure.” Berral smiled and led him to the door. “Rest now. We will see you soon.”