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Paladins
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Paladins

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Author: Joel Rosenberg
Publisher: Baen, 2004
Series: Mordred's Heirs: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Every schoolboy knows that Mordred the Great defeated King Arthur the Tyrant in the twelfth century, and Mordred's heirs had preserved the British crown through the Age of Crisis, and extended its reach halfway across the globe. By the 17th century, much of Europe, Asia and the New world was ruled from Londinium by the the kings of the Pendragon dynasty, protecting the Crown against the still-powerful Holy Roman Empire as much as the onset of the Dar Al Islam. The ragged band of outlaws that had been created as Mordred the Great's bodyguards had, over the centuries, become the paladins of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon, dedicated to the Pendragons, each one taking the vow of "Service, honor, faith, obedience. Justice tempered only by mercy; mercy tempered only by justice."

But knights of the Order had more than vows to preserve the Crown. During the Age of Crisis, the Great Wizards had forged live swords to be weapons of the Order knights. Weapons of such power that could be trusted to no lesser mortals, because White swords held the souls of saints, while the Red swords imprisoned the souls of those who were anything but saints, and in the wrong hands, Red swords were capable of unspeakable destruction.

The art of making live swords had perished with the Great Wizards at end of the Age of Crisis.

Or so everyone thought.

But now, as the Crown, the Empire, and the Dar Al Islam sit astride the world in a precarious balance, three knights of the Order have discovered a brand new, previously unknown Red sword which has been very recently forged.

Worse, the tortured soul imprisoned in the sword remembers that it was only one of many which were cached in the hold of a mysterious sailing ship, origin unknown, and destination uncertain....


Excerpt

Chapter 1: Into the Fire

I'll begin at the beginning, because with Cully, the beginning is always the same: a man standing between the sharp and the soft.

"Not while I breathe," he's saying.

I've always thought that's a better oath than "service, honor, faith, and obedience," and not just because I've been the soft more often than the sharp.

That's the beginning.

Knowing Cully, it'll likely be the end.

--Gray

"Leave the child alone," Cully said quietly, barely above a whisper.

Cully didn't sound like he had been looking for a fight. He never did--although he had certainly found more than enough.

Gray hadn't been looking for a fight, either. Gray was looking for Cully; he had been doing just that for weeks, all up and down the Pironesian coast, and far enough up into the hills to come down on the other side of more than one of the bigger islands.

Given that they were looking for Cully in the city of Pironesia itself, and particularly given Cully's background, there was no need to try any of the estates nestled high in the hills, so they had made the obvious split: Bear wandered through the markets and the warehouses, while Gray took the taverns. There were advantages to rank, and, besides, Bear didn't seem to mind.

Gray had quickly made his way through the various dockside sections that catered to Shqiperese, Boyaliri, Italians, and the local trade, on the grounds that Cully would likely prefer to hear English spoken while he was drinking, but also that likelihood was not a certainty, and diligence a virtue.

Still, eventually, Gray had found himself on English Row, where the readable letters on hanging placards, the drunken sea chanties that would have been comprehensible if they hadn't been quite so drunken, and above all the ever-pervasive smell of roast mutton felt almost homey. With the narrow, twisty streets and the tall, three-story buildings concealing the hills that rose beyond the city, he could have squinted and almost have fooled himself that he was back in Londinium, if it wasn't for the pleasant smell of fish oil emanating from the too-dim lanterns, rather than the bitter reek of black whale oil that would have filled the air at home. But this wasn't Londinium, and he didn't try to fool himself. Gray prided himself on very few things, but a lack self-deception was one of them.

The Dangling Sacerdote was the fifth of those dockside taverns that Gray had checked out as afternoon was already giving way to evening.

Gray had been on his way in through the mudroom when he had heard the quiet sound of the blow and the loud cry of pain, and quickened his pace, making his way through the men streaming for the exit without more pushing than necessary. More than a few pairs of eyes widened at the sight of his two swords, but none of the men stopped to ask about that, not knowing--or, more likely more interested in getting away than finding out--if the two swords and his distinctive clothing meant what they should have meant.

It hadn't quite started yet, not quite.

Cully stood between the three sailors and boy; a fourth sailor lay on the floor in a disgusting puddle of something that was probably his own vomit, trying to breathe.

Cully himself was dressed in a loose woven sailor's tunic over calf-length breeches and sandals, the tunic belted with a length of rope, but other than that, he was about the same as he had been the last time Gray had seen him.

Oh, there were a few more lines in his face, but the collection was already large enough that a few additions didn't much matter. His dull gray hair might have been a little thinner, although what with it being tied back in a sailor's ponytail, it was hard to tell. His hooked nose hadn't any new breaks, and the deep-set eyes still seemed to see everything without moving. When Gray had been in first form, the novices used to say that Father Cully could see more out of the corner of an eye than most priests could during a focused meditation.

It figured that Gray would find Cully standing between the wolves and their prey. He should be used to it by now. Jenn certainly would have been, but Jenn wasn't at Cully's waist--where she belonged, no matter what the Council said.

The boy-child was about what you would expect in a waterfront tavern: barefoot, bare-chested, and skinny; bruised and scabbed; clad only in a kirtle that had once been a burlap sack, and almost certainly was his only clothing.

One hand was clamped to where blood dripped from the right side of his face, and the blocky man looming over him told the rest of the story. The wars and the Occupation had left a plentiful harvest of orphans behind them, and many of them gravitated to the waterfront, eking out what miserable existence they could while trying to avoid the impressment gangs--and worse.

Some lucky ones would manage to get themselves jobs as cabin boys on merchantmen and avoid the Press that way, and a few would find work in the olive groves and vineyards outside the city, but most just got by as best they could.

Gray knew something of that himself, although not from recent experience.

"I told him to leave the boy alone," Cully said, again, quietly, to the sailors. Cully prided himself on his patience; he never seemed to mind repeating himself. And: "I've told you three, as well."

They were now alone in the common room; Gray assumed that the innkeeper had already made his way up on the roof, and was at this moment signaling manically for the Watch. From the way the smell of scorched fish was starting to fill the air, the pot of some oily fish stew burbling on its hook in the fireplace badly needed stirring, but apparently not as much as whoever had the responsibility for the stirring of it needed to be elsewhere.

Understandably so. Fights weren't uncommon along the waterfront, although the separation of nationalities seemed to keep them to a minimum, but drunken sailors would fight, and fighting would upon more than rare occasion turn to killing, and as far as the Crown could reach, murder would be punished. Many satrapal governors preferred to open their monthly reports to Londinium with dry statistics of hangings--and Halloran, the Pironesian governor, was famous for it, even going to far as to, upon occasion, send ropes as mementos home to England. Government wasn't for the squeamish.

Neither was what Gray did, for that matter.

One of the sailors looked over at Gray, then nudged the nearest of the others.

"This isn't any of your concern, Sir... ?

"My name is Grayling," Gray said. "Joshua Grayling. Grayling, like the fish."

"He meant to say that this doesn't need to be any of your concern, Sir Joshua," another put in. He ducked his head quickly, then straightened it--he didn't like taking his eyes off of Cully.

Cully still didn't look at Gray; he just smiled at the sailor, in a way that reminded Gray, not for the first time, that what looks like a smile is the way a wolf bares his teeth to rip and rend and tear.

"Don't look to Sir Joshua to interfere," Cully said, quietly. "He's unlikely to. 'Sides, I gave up taking orders from priests some years ago."

Gray smiled. That was pure Cully. To most people, a Knight of the Order was first, foremost, and always, a knight; to Cully, an Order Knight was first and always a priest. Granted, both were dedicated to service, and if the service Cully chose hadn't always made sense to the Council, to the Abbot General, or to Gray, that probably didn't bother Cully any more than it would bother--had bothered--Jenn.

Cully knelt over the man he had downed, and snatched the purse from his belt--snapping the thong with no apparent effort--and tossed the purse to the boy. The sailor made some vague batting movements with his hands, but Cully just brushed his arms aside, more gently than Gray would have expected. Gray would have hurt the sailor. A lot.

"You should leave," Cully said gently, turning to the boy, one sandaled foot pinning the sailor's nearest hand to the floor, the other resting lightly on the sailor's throat. "Just walk. There is no need to run from the likes of these."

The boy had snatched the purse out of the air, and dashed past Gray, ducking to one side, as though to avoid a blow, and was through the beaded curtain and gone in a heartbeat, leaving nothing behind but the clicking of the beads.

"Sir... Joshua?" one of the sailors asked, turning to Gray. "You haven't said anything." His singsong accent spoke of a Brigstow origin--there had been that telltale el-sound at end of his vowels.

Gray nodded. "True enough. There's little point in me saying much of anything, since I'm not here, after all," he said, throwing a hip over the edge of a table.

He crossed his arms over his chest. Let them work it out themselves. There were arguments that it was his duty to intervene, but Gray had once been enough like that barefoot, bruised boy to be his twin, and he would save arguing with Cully over matters that he cared about; the fate of a bunch of bullies wasn't among those.

But perhaps it was his duty to say something. It was possible that they'd listen, after all.

"If I was here, mind you," he said, "I'd suggest running away--I've known Father Cully for some years--but since I'm not here, I'm not saying anything, and, besides, I don't think he'd let you leave now, anyway." The boy was probably long-gone by now, and the sailors would be unlikely to find him quickly, if at all--but that was the sort of risk on the boy's part that Cully would be unlikely to permit.

"True enough." Cully had finally turned to him, and a thin smile creased his face. "Gray," he said, "it's been a long--"

That was when the nearest sailor made his move. The fool. Laying hands on a knight of the Order?

You could take away the robes, the sword, and the honors, but taking away the training was another matter entirely, and Cully had been in training since around the time that Gray was born. It was possible, of course, despite the legends, to take a knight of the Order by stealth, surprise, or overwhelming force.

But Cully had--also of course--been watching carefully for just this sort of foolishness.

And there were only three of them, after all, and he was, after all, still Cully.

He blurred into motion, and when he stopped, just moments later, there were now four sailors groaning on the floor amid the wreckage.

Gray counted three broken arms, and from the gasping sounds that the biggest of them was making, one possibly broken trachea. All of them had broken noses, of course; Cully was one of those who had taught Gray how a painful, distracting blow set the opponent up for the real attack.

If they'd actually laid a hand on Cully, Gray would have drawn his own sword and been on them, but--but, no.

The sailors had had no chance at all. They were tough and brutal, of course, but they hadn't spent decades studying and practicing how to damage and kill at close range the way that knights of the Order did. A knight would use his sword if he could--his mundane sword by preference, even if he was Red or White--but there were only some times that you could walk about with a sword, live or mundane, naked in your hands, and as fast as you could get the sword into your hands, there was no guarantee that that would be fast enough.

And Cully had no sword at all--he had, for some reason, left it at his table.

Cully, despite his age, wasn't even breathing heavily as he walked over to the table where he had been sitting, and retrieved his sheathed sword, a mundane weapon--of course--made up to look like a simple, straight walking stick. Gray had a sheath like that for the Khan, for those rare occasions that he both wanted to and was able to appear in public in something other than the robes of the Order. There were few places that a commoner not in uniform but carrying a sword would not draw unwanted attention. He had left that scabbard, along with the rest of his gear, aboard the Wellesley; he didn't mind drawing attention in the city.

At Gray's knowing nod, Cully shook his head and rapped the sword against the table. "No, it's just a stick, Father," he said, without a trace of hesitation or mockery in his use of the title. "I've long since given up the sword. All kinds of swords."

Gray made a face. "That's unfortunate. Swords are what I was sent to find you about."

"Swords?" Cully didn't like that. Neither did Gray, for that matter. Life was like that. What you liked or didn't like rarely mattered.

Gray nodded. "Yes."

"She sent you?"

"Of course. The Abbot General, as well." Well, he hadn't been sent to find Cully, not specifically--but She, at least, had known that was likely, if this had turned out to be anything, and it had.

No, it was more than that. She knew that Gray would turn to Cully if there was any possible way to justify it, just as Bear knew that, and just as Gray himself did. Cully would know that, too.

Still, Cully made a face. There was little love lost between Cully and the Abbot General, for good reason and ill. She was a different matter, although all of the Order knights always fell in love with Her, at least for a time. Gray had, in his own way, but there was little of love in Gray, after all, and it had long since ceased being an obsession or a burden. Gray and Cully were, of course, very different.

"For what purpose?" Cully finally asked.

"For purpose enough. More than that, you'll have to accompany me to the Governor's palace to discover," he said, as he had planned to.

Cully grinned. "Ah. Curiosity has always been my downfall, and you think that it shall trap me again, eh?"

It was not curiosity that had been Cully's downfall, but Gray didn't rise to the bait. Cully was just trying to distract him.

"It's not an invitation, but a command," Gray said. "I'm not trying to tease your curiousity." That was almost true; he wasn't just trying to do that.

"Not with more powerful means at your disposal."

"Yes. If I have to use the words, Father Cully--"

" 'Cully.' Not 'Sir Cully,' not 'Brother Cully,' and most certainly not 'Father Cully.' Just 'Cully,' if you please."

It would have been easier to concede the point, if only for the moment, but with Cully, the easy way had rarely been the best way.

So Gray shook his head, slowly. "No. You were released from active service in the Order, true; and you surrendered your sword and rank--but you were not relieved of your vows, Sir Cully of Cully's Woode," he said, as though daring Cully to contradict him.

"Vows." Cully didn't respond to the dare, not directly. " 'Service, honor, faith, obedience. Justice tempered only by mercy; mercy tempered only by justice.' " He shrugged. "My honor is a sad joke, and I long ago lost my faith--and, well, obedience was never one of my virtues; and neither was I ever much for mercy."

Gray could have argued with that latter, but Cully went on: "Justice? You might have me there, but then you'd have to persuade me that She has much of anything to do with justice, and that would be... difficult, although not as difficult as persuading me that the Abbot has anything to do with it, except by coincidence."

Gray could have argued with him about that, too, but...

There was no point in wasting his time trying, even absent Cully's stubbornness--not when Gray had a simpler alternative. He raised his hand in the Sign: thumb folded in tightly against the palm; all four fingers spread widely, symbolizing service, honor, faith, and obedience.

"In the name of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon," Gray said, "by the power vested in me by the Abbot General of that Order, I do call you into service, Sir, Brother, and Father Cully of Cully's Woode, upon your oath, Sir Cully; upon peril of your soul."

Cully's face went blank. "You--you speak of souls, Joshua?"

Gray would have liked to have taken offense at that, but there was no offense to be found in the truth, no matter how brutal that truth was.

"Yes, I do--just as a thirsty man speaks of water: hoarsely."

Cully laughed. "You've not persuaded me, Father." He carefully toed a knife away from the outstretched hand of one of the sailors before turning toward Gray. "But I'll walk with you to the Governor's palace, I'll wish you a good evening, and then I'll let my soul take care of itself."

Well, that would do for the moment--as long as Gray didn't commit himself to leaving it at that. "The governor's palace it is."

"Let's be off, then, shall we?" Cully raised his stick as though to slide it under his belt, but caught himself, smiled, and set it down on the table next to him. He folded his hands over his waist, bowing deeply--like a peasant, not a knight!--then picked up his stick and followed Gray out into the street, leaving the sailors behind.

* * *

The first time Gray had seen Pironesia, it had been as a second-form novice, aboard the old Resurgent, and the smells and tastes and colors were still fresh in his mind, even decades later.

It had been different then, on his maiden voyage. The sails of the Resurgent and her sister ships making their way into the harbor had seemed to be of an impossibly pure white, ballooning out to catch the last breath of the wind, while the dark sea whooshed beneath the hull. The same wind had brought hints of the garlic-laden lamb cooking on the fires atop the lighthouses guarding the harbor entrance, as the golden light of the setting sun had caught the marble spires and high bridges, making them glow with an inner fire.

It wasn't the same now.

Under what was left of the fading, fiery glow of the setting sun that had all but vanished behind the hills, the dockside reeked of rotting fish and ancient sin, and the sails of the one fat-bellied sloop wheezing its way into the harbor were patched and stained, and seemed to hang limp from the masts, even when filled.

Was it Pironesia that had changed, or was it Gray? It could have been both, of course, and that was the most likely explanation.

Some things had definitely changed--back when he had been a shaved-headed novice, eyes hadn't widened when he walked down these same streets, nor had people avoided meeting his gaze.

They did now; that didn't bother him at all.

Before they had walked for more than a few minutes, the sun had completely set behind the hills to the west, and night was edging in across the harbor, chased by the faint glow remaining along the horizon.

They walked in silence for some time as darkness crept in on the port, step by stealthy step.

Gray wanted to say something, anything, but he feared that if he spoke too soon, or too loudly, Cully would simply disappear into the shadows, as though he were some sort of ghost that could only be compelled to take substance briefly and reluctantly, to vanish at the slightest sound.

It was silly to worry about that, but... it felt absurdly good to be walking beside Cully once again, even though the old man had long since stopped towering over the nameless, bruised little boy that had been called Grayling--and much worse--on the Southampton docks. It wasn't terribly unusual for nameless orphans to be given a tryout at Alton, although few made it through the first form. It was, in fact, much more common that a commoner rather than a noble would end up kneeling before His Majesty. The Order was loyal to His Majesty, and only to him, and even a whiff of suspicion that family loyalties might ever take precedence over that was enough to get a novice called into the Abbot's office to be persuaded to leave Alton, one way or the other.

Gray had had no such extraneous loyalties, then or later, of course; when he had served with His Own, he would have struck down the Duchess of Cumberland had she approached the King with a weapon, just as he would--and had--struck down anybody, of any rank, who he thought might endanger His Majesty.

There were always people with grievances against the King, and ofttimes Gray could see some validity in those grievances--not that they had ever stayed his hand, or his sword. You were allowed objectivity in this life, as long as you didn't let it rule you.

"How have you been?" Cully finally asked.

"As well as can be expected," Gray said. "Under the circumstances."

"Could you, perhaps, be a little more detailed?" Cully almost smiled. "Brevity is a virtue, true enough, but it is a minor virtue."

Gray shrugged. "Life goes on," he said, "until it stops. I'm trying to go on."

"Oh." Cully made a face. "You are going to make me come out and ask, aren't you?"

"No, not really," Gray said. "Only if you really want to know."

Cully nodded, as though to himself. "Very well: you win, Joshua. How is She?"

There it was. "She's as well as can be expected, She says. She misses you, and wishes you'd return to Her service." That was the way She had put it. Not the King's service, or the Order's--Hers. She said that Cully would understand.

He nodded. "As do I, Sir Joshua. Miss Her, that is." No pain showed on his face; he said it far too matter-of-factly.

Gray believed the true words, not the lying tone and manner. "You don't have to call me 'sir.' "

"Ah, but I must, of course. It's either 'Sir' or 'Father,' in recognition of your rank; I can hardly call you 'Brother,' after all. You're a priest, Gray; a sworn and sealed Knight of Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon--a knight of the Red Sword, in fact, honored and deservedly raised in estate. Me? I'm just an old man with a walking stick." He furrowed his brow, and gestured at the two swords under Gray's sash. "You are still carrying the Khan, aren't you?"

"Of course." His hand started to move toward the Khan's hilt, but he stopped it. The last thing he needed right now was the Khan telling him how to handle Cully.

"That's a pity. I had hoped that Ralph would have, eventually, thought better of that." Cully shook his head. "I always thought and often said you should have been given something less dark, but... "

"It suits me," Gray said. "It's a perfect weapon, in its way."

"In its way." He gave Gray a look that could have meant anything, or nothing. Then: "Alexander once said just those words to me: 'it's a perfect weapon, in its way.' "

It was Gray's turn to shrug. "I'm not Alexander, the Khan isn't the Sandoval--I was given the Khan by the Council."

He should have been angry at the comparison, but he wasn't. He would have to sit by himself and try to figure out why some other time. Focus on the moment, he reminded himself. The moment usually held enough peril as it was.

"No, you're not Alexander," Cully said, a duck of his head making it a concession, rather than an accusation. He let out a long breath. "I've wondered, from time to time, just how many innocents I murdered by letting him live."

Gray didn't have an answer for that, so he changed the subject. "Would you have preferred that I had been given the Sandoval?"

A silly question, but Cully seemed to consider it seriously for a moment, then: "No; of course not."

"He wouldn't have been able to take it from me." Sister Mary had been too trusting of Alexander. They all had been too trusting of Alexander.

"I'm none too certain of that; you would have turned your back on him for a moment, just as Sister Mary did, just as I would have. As I did, time and time again, and never thought it a risk. No, I wasn't thinking about that." Cully shook his head. "I was thinking that the Khan's more than enough of a burden on you, Joshua. It's something I've thought about much, over the past years."

Gray shrugged again, and let his hand rest against the Khan's hilt, the familiar exposed band of steel cold against his palm, as it always was, no matter how long Gray's hand rested there.

Burden, am I?

Well, yes. The Khan was certainly that, and more.

Silly of him; sillier of you.

The Khan was more amused than offended. The notion that being able to kill one's enemies could ever be a burden wasn't exactly beyond the Khan's comprehension. He understood it, but he understood it as an effete bit of Western stupidity, something to be tolerated under the circumstances, but hardly anything to be taken seriously.

The Great Khan had been bloody-handed, true, and he and his horde had left a trail of bodies across from what was now Nova Monglia to the Caspian Sea, never regretting it--relishing every moment, in fact. But the Khan hadn't taken any joy in the carnage itself, as Gray knew better than any man living. To the Great Khan, killing was only and always the way of conquest, and conquest was only and always what made a man great, and it was the conquest, the victory, the triumph that he loved so dearly, an insatiable hunger that grew sharper with each victory, and which could never be satisfied, any more than a fire could be doused by pouring lamp oil on it.

Damned, the Great Khan was, of that Gray was certain, but he was honestly so.

Emil Sandoval, on the other hand--at least so it was said--had actively enjoyed the family business of waylaying, robbing, and murdering travelers. Why as gentle a soul as Sister Mary had ever been selected to bear the Sandoval was another of the mysteries that Gray had never been able to puzzle out for himself, any more than why he himself had been chosen for the Khan.

Service; honor; faith; obedience--the only one he was sure he was capable of was the latter, and he had carried the Khan willingly, and as well as he could, although Gray wondered, as he always did, how it would have been if he'd been given a White Sword instead of Red.

The Goatboy, say; or the Hermit. Or Jenn.

"I see envy on your face, young Father," Cully said, softly.

"Yes. My sins are legion. Envy is hardly the worst of them."

"You're thinking of Jenn?"

"As you are."

"Of course." Cully nodded. "I always thought you should have gone White. I pressed for it in the Council--I even offered to surrender Jenn, in your favor--but among my many flaws is that I've never been a very persuasive fellow."

"It's too late for that, Father," Gray said. "Since Vlaovic--if not before." A city in revolt; a single knight of the Red Sword sent to handle it, who handled it in the only way that he could, and the screams of the dying would have haunted Gray's dreams ever after, if he ever allowed himself the luxury of dreaming. "A White Sword would turn in my hands, if it didn't burn me alive--"

"Now it would, perhaps. That wasn't always so. And don't be overly sure that Jenn is as White as you believe."

Gray would have thought that he was beyond surprise, at least when it came to Cully. He had been wrong, yet again. "You're claiming--"

"I'm claiming nothing. I'm suggesting that the difference between White and Red is a matter of individual observation, theological doctrine, and historical interpretation, and not one of hard, cold fact."

"But--"

"But nothing. I know what you see when you take the Khan in hand, but if you believed things were always as they seem, you'd not have dragged an old shepherd away from his bread and beer--and where are you leading me? We should have turned right down the Street of Sails to get to the governor's palace."

"I told Bear to meet me at the Plaza of the Order when he finished his rounds, with you in tow if he had better luck than I'd expected either of us would. He'll be happy to see you."

As was Gray, for that matter. He was happier about being with Cully again than he thought he could be happy about anything

"The Plaza, eh?" Cully chuckled. "That seems fitting--there may be statues of the two of you around the Fountain of Heroes some day. So sure you were that you'd find me?"

"No, I thought it unlikely. I originally thought you'd be most likely found up in the hills, tending to your sheep. We've been looking for you for long enough that I was starting to think we might not find you and have to consider... other options. Still, I thought that if you were in town, you'd more likely be nearer the beer than farther from it."

Cully laughed. "Ah. You do know me well. A shepherd's life is not the easiest or most pleasant. A man can use a few beers when he takes a break from it, and while it's not going to make me rich, I can afford enough beer for a good drunk. Can't stomach enough of the local wine to get drunk on it--tastes like chewing a pine tree."

"Who's tending your flock?"

"Do you mean that as the usual metaphor, Father, or are you talking about actual sheep?" Cully grinned and went on without waiting for an answer: "Nobody, thankfully--the hills are filled with thieves. What was my flock is probably hanging from hooks in the slaughterhouse by now." He patted the pouch at his waist. "Safer to just buy more ewes and rams and start over again. It's an honest life, as long as you don't tempt your neighbors."

"Yes, I suppose it is."

"Which, you should say, since that's what you're thinking, makes it very unlike me--and here we are." Before Gray could interrupt to say that he had been thinking nothing of the sort, Cully raised a hand, and his voice: "Sir David--over here."

Bear had been at the fountain in the center of the square, refreshing himself in the way that the light breeze caught and shattered the spray, mindless of the way that it was soaking his robes.

Was it a coincidence that of the seven statues placed around the circumference of the fountain he had positioned himself beneath that of Woltan the Smith? Perhaps not; Sir Woltan, after all, had been the first to carry the Nameless, the same, now-scabbarded sword that was stuck through the sash around Bear's thick waist, above his mundane weapon.

Bear was a big man, more than a head taller than Cully or Gray, and built along thick, peasant lines that belied his putative parentage. Gray had always wondered if it was that that had caused Baron Shanley to pledge his son to the Order by way of ridding himself of the boy, or if the Baron had simply intended that Bear add a year or two at Alton to his curriculum vitae as preparation for an Army or Navy or Administration career, as was common for second sons. Not likely that he had expected young David to end up kneeling before the King, to arise as a knight of the Order, after all.

There was no way of knowing, not really. Gray, having spent awkward hours-that-felt-like-days and days-that-felt-like-weeks with both of Bear's parents several times while on leave, found it hard to imagine Bear's slight, delicate mother engaged in a sweaty coupling with some unbathed peasant--but, then again, Gray had found it difficult to imagine the baroness coupling with her always elegantly attired, aristocratic husband.

Bear's five brothers and sisters, all of whom physically resembled the Baron, were ample evidence that Gray's imagination, once again, had fallen short.

Bear walked quickly toward them, then stopped and dropped to one knee before Cully, his left hand properly pushing down on the hilts of his swords, sweeping them up and behind him so that their scabbards didn't touch the ground as he knelt--not bothering to arrange his robes to cushion his knee against the hard stones, as Gray certainly would have, if he'd chosen to kneel, which he most certainly would not have.

"Bless me, Father, if you think me worthy," Bear said, his head bowed.

"Up, up, up, foolish boy," Cully said. "Even a shaved-headed first-form novice, much less a sealed knight of the Order, doesn't drop to a knee before a mere shepherd. It's... unbecoming, boy, most undignified."

Gray had been about to say the same thing--although not nearly so gently, nor with even a trace of a catch in his voice. Not that it would have done any good. Bear defered to Gray on much, but not all, and he certainly would not on this.

Bear didn't look up. If anything, he lowered his head further.

"Holiness is not resident in estate, Father Cully," he said, quietly. "Saint Peter was a fisherman, Saint Albert of Leeds a beggar, and Our Lord Himself a humble carpenter. I'll rise in gratitude when I have your blessing, Father, or in shame when you tell me that I'm unworthy of it. Not before. Not otherwise."

"And if I just walk away and leave you kneeling in the square? You'll look foolish here."

Bear didn't answer, and he didn't move. Bear wasn't the brightest of men, but he was famous in the Order for his stubbornness. Back when Gray had been in the fourth form and Bear in the first, Gray had once set Bear to saying the rosary before dinner for some minor or imagined failing, and had uncharacteristically forgotten about it, only to find Bear still on his knees, his naked head still bowed in prayer, beads still clicking between his fingers, when Gray had led the rest of his cohort into the chapel for morning mass.

"I should leave you here on your knees, Bear, and hope that the pain helps you come to your senses by morning," Cully said, with a quick glance at Gray that told him that Cully fully remembered the rosary incident, "by which time I intend to be well on my way home."

"If that is your will, Father and Brother Cully, then so be it," Bear said, his head still bowed.

Cully sighed, and surrendered, laying a hand atop Bear's head. "You were always a stubborn pupil, Bear, and it's far too late to break you of that now, so I'll not try. You do have my blessing, for what it's worth, which I suspect isn't much. You always have that, Bear; you always have, and you always shall." He removed his hand and turned to Gray. "As do you, Joshua, whether it's asked for or not."

Gray started to speak, but Cully held up a peremptory hand. "I did say 'for what it's worth.' "

Bear started to rise, a broad smile across his thick face. "Thank you, Father," he said, his voice thick and husky. He got to his feet and reflexively adjusted his swords in his sash. "It's--Gray." His eyes widened.

Gray felt it too. Something cold, and dark, at the edges of his perception. He didn't have to drop his hand to the cold metal to feel the Khan stir with excitement.

"Shh." He held up a hand.

Cully nodded. "We are not alone, and I don't think I care for the company." His nostrils flared, as though smelling something horridly rank.

But he had said we, after all, and at that realization, Gray found himself on the verge of tears, and was furious with himself for that. It was silly for a grown man to be so moved by one word, even if that word had come from Cully.

We.

The Khan was whispering to Gray; Gray let his hand rest upon the cold steel.

Danger. Release me.

No.

"Over there. Can you see them?" Cully had caught it first, and Bear was only a heartbeat behind him. "I can't. Not yet--but they're there. I can feel them."

Them, not it.

There was something, but Gray couldn't see it, couldn't feel it, not specifically.

Release me. Death and destruction is what I am all about.

No. Not now. Not if it wasn't necessary, despite the temptation--or perhaps because of it.

"Darklings," Bear said, saying it as the curse he would confess and do penance for later, if there was a later. Bear never shirked a penance; there were disadvantages to carrying White, and holiness was a burden in more ways than that.

Bear took a step to one side and drew his mundane sword, tossing the scabbard aside; it clattered loudly, painfully so, on the hard cobblestones. With his left hand freed, he pulled the Nameless from his belt, but held it by the center of the scabbard, making no motion to draw it.

Gray finally saw them as they started to move out of the shadows.

They were mostly shadow themselves. Their dark robes, flapping in the light breeze, were every bit as real and substantial as the sharp blades that they carried, but the bodies beneath the robes gained and lost substance as they glided across the plaza, the tips of their boots touching only every few feet. Gray had the sensation that if he only looked more closely, he could see the faces hidden in the folds of the robes, but he didn't know that they had faces, or took any more substantial form than necessary to defile and kill whatever they touched.

Now. These are unclean. Even more so than you and me, and we're both damned.

"No," Gray said. "I'll handle this." He didn't need to look or whistle a command to know that Bear would move out to his left and Cully to his right as Gray walked forward, his mundane sword in his hand, although he hadn't remembered drawing it, or tossing aside the scabbard so that his free hand could rest on the Khan's steel.

That won't be enough. I shall live again, eh?

Not yet. Maybe not ever. He hoped it would be never, at least never as long as he lived, but...

You're a fool, Gray. What have you to lose? Your soul? That was lost the first time you pulled me from my sheath. You need me.

He set himself for their approach. The Khan was probably right, as he usually was in such circumstances. Any mundane sword could cut through the flesh and clothing, and a good dwarven sword--knights of the Order were never equipped with less--would not shatter on lesser steel.

But it wasn't the steel. Gray's mundane sword was of this world, not the next, and carried no trace of curse or blessing; darklings were only enough of this world to make it possible for them to manipulate cold objects. Theologians argued whether they were really demons from Hell, or something less, but there was no argument that they were foul as foul could be, that their touch burned, that wounds received from their hands wounded the soul as much as the body, and that neither body nor soul ever completely healed.

It could still be that he would have to release the Khan, again. And even that, horrible as it was, might not be enough.

Oh, it will be enough. More than enough. If you don't mind taking another few souls, or whatever a darkling has in its place. I certainly don't.

The three knights moved forward, spreading out. You often had to retreat before you could advance in a fight, and the best way to be sure that you had stable ground behind you was to walk forward over it.

This was the sort of thing that he had practiced, over three decades, from novice through sealed brother and sworn knight, and after, on more practice floors than Gray could count: he would take the lead, and the other two would drop back, one to each side, close enough to protect him, but not so close that he would have to worry about cutting them with even the broadest slash.

Bear to his left; Cully to his right. If a Knight of the Order was to die, this was the proper sort of company with which to do it. It would be a good death, better than such as Joshua Grayling deserved.

You don't have to die. Release me.

Concentrate on the weapon, not on the one who carried it. In the Zone, at the juncture of nightmare and substance, the darklings had other, far greater threats at their disposal, but here, without the ability to draw strength and substance from cursed soil, they were limited by the same lack of substance that made them almost invulnerable to ordinary weapons.

Attack the weapon, not the wielder. That might work; in their weakened state, they might draw sustenance from the metal. And if it didn't, if it took unleashing the Khan to do so, well, then, that's what a live sword did better than anything else, after all, and that's why he carried it.

"No," Cully said. "I count six. And--"

Cully launched himself at them, his stick held high, and batted one darkling sword hard, sending it spinning off into the night, then spun about to strike at another that was moving, more swiftly than a darkling should have been able to, toward his side.

Gray had already followed Cully. He struck up at one sword, then across at another, frustrated when both of the darklings spun away into the dark, not losing their weapons, circling around back.

You can watch him die, or you can release me.

If I have to release you, I will. Otherwise, you can stay locked in your prison of steel, Khan.

If you wait too long, you can release me to protect his corpse, Gray.

Stop bothering me...

He would let Bear go first. Releasing holiness was not to be done casually, but it fell more lightly on the world than did unleashing evil.

Bear might as well have read his mind. "Move back, the two of you," he said. "They're not hurt by the metal, but if God does not will otherwise, it shall end now." It sounded more like a threat than a prayer.

As Gray moved to the side, the white, pure light flared from behind him, dazzling his mind even more than its reflection from the stones did his eyes.

The darkling in front of him seemed to waver, and when Cully slapped his stick down on the darkling's sword, the sword clanged on the stones, as though the old man had met no resistance.

The light flared brighter and brighter, until Gray couldn't see at all, and even through eyelids jammed closed over hot tears, it still dazzled him; even with his free arm held up over his eyes, he could still feel its icy brightness that shone through flesh.

And then, as suddenly as a soap bubble disappears on the tip of a needle, it was gone, and they were alone in the plaza, surrounded by half a dozen swords, and an equal number of empty robes lying limp on the cobblestones.

Bear's face was pale and sweat-slickened, and as he took a step toward Gray and Cully, his knees began to tremble. Gray knew better than to approach him--not with the Nameless naked in his hands--but Cully dove for the Nameless's scabbard, retrieved it, then rose and, moving slowly, too slowly, proffered it to Bear, who accepted it.

Bear sheathed the Nameless, and sat down, hard, on the cold cobblestones.

It was only then that he fainted.

Now it was safe for even Gray to approach him. He put to fingers to Bear's neck: his pulse was fast, but strong.

I guess you don't need me this time.

Not this time.

I'm patient. You'll need me before this is all over.

The Khan sounded happy.

Then again, the Khan usually seemed happy, and was always so when there was the possibility of blood and death--and the more imminent the possibility and the greater the number of possible dead bodies, the better.

"I think," Cully said slowly, carefully, "that I shall accompany you to see the Governor, after all. Take his shoulders; I'll take the feet." He grunted. "He hasn't gotten any lighter over the years, has he?"

Copyright © 2004 by Joel Rosenberg


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