“I appreciate you letting me stay at Fallen Sky tonight,” Gustave said.
Xavier had to tilt his head upward to meet the gaze of his friend. Though the two men stood at roughly the same height, Gustave sat a full head above Xavier in the saddle because his warhorse, Uraeus, was so massive.
“You’re welcome at my home anytime,” Xavier replied as he brushed snow from Christian’s mane. “You know that.”
Gustave nodded and tapped a finger to his brow, their signal for thank you. Snow fell in heavy flakes on the two riders, and the only sound to be heard above the wind in the pines was the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves.
“There’s something about this place,” Gustave murmured after a while. “Something about these trees, this road, this air. The Two Kingdoms hold some impressive sights—but there’s nothing quite like home.”
Southern Calldor was home to both Gustave and Xavier. They had grown up riding through its forests and fishing from its streams. They had attended university together, and upon completion, had both been offered tutelage under the same overlord, Walden. Under Walden’s watchful eye, the two friends had become lords of their own estates, and now lived within miles of each other.
And for as much as Xavier dreamed of living on the road as a full-time mercenary, he had to admit that Gustave was right. It had been several days since the events of Lord Bal’s coronation party, where Xavier’s fledgling mercenary crew, the Wolverines, had completed another successful assignment. The days that Xavier and Gustave had spent on the road travelling back to Southern Calldor had been frigid.
“I’m certainly looking forward to a proper fire and a full kitchen,” Xavier replied.
At long last, the riders were greeted by the austere wooden archway that marked the edge of Xavier’s lands. Though Gustave’s estate was only a few hours farther down the road, the day was fading fast, and he had accepted Xavier’s offer to stay the night. As the two men passed beneath the arch, their torches cast just enough light to illuminate the words Fallen Sky carved along the top.
As the structures of his estate came into view, Xavier couldn’t help but smile at the familiar sight of the castle rising above the outbuildings, its turrets and towers piercing the sky. The castle doors were suddenly thrown open, and light spilled out onto the snow. A fur-wrapped figure hastened out across the grounds to meet the two riders, and Xavier felt his smile grow. Even before the figure was close enough for him to see the auburn hair poking from under the cowl, Xavier knew it was Tempe. Tempe had a regimented way of moving—even in the bitter cold, her back was straight and her head was held high.
“My Lord Xavier, welcome home!” Tempe cried as she reached the two men. “And Lord Gustave, I knew that had to be you—you’re the only one I know who rides a warhorse when you travel! Welcome to Fallen Sky!”
Tempe led Xavier and Gustave into the stable, where Sedona, a big man with a kindly face, was waiting.
“Welcome, m’Lords!” Sedona’s bushy beard waggled with delight as he turned to the horses. “Christian, yer as full o’ energy as ever! Good t’ see yeh too, Uraeus!”
Tempe was Xavier’s second at the estate and Sedona was master of the stable. Xavier wouldn’t have traded Sedona for any horse whisperer in the Two Kingdoms, and Tempe—Xavier wouldn’t have traded Tempe for anything.
After greetings were traded, horses tended to, and saddlebags unpacked, Xavier sunk onto a bale of hay with his back to the wall. Across the stable, Tempe, who had been arranging Xavier’s gear on a table, was twirling his arming sword absentmindedly. Her eyes sparkled and danced like light on water as she listened to Gustave telling her about the party. Those eyes flitted over to meet Xavier’s for a moment, and with a wink, Tempe set his sword back on the table.
Xavier had been to the ocean several times, and once, he had even ridden on a sailing ship. The ocean was deadly—it was filled with monsters that swam beneath the waves. Xavier was terrified of the sea, but he was also strangely exhilarated by it, and he felt a similar sensation every time he looked into Tempe’s eyes.
When yawns began to outnumber words, Tempe led Gustave across the grounds to the castle. Xavier had mumbled something about keeping Sedona company a while longer in the stable, but he was really just too tired to face the winter’s cold. A barn cat had leapt onto the bale beside Xavier and had nestled into his thigh, purring softly.
With eyes closed, Xavier stroked the cat at his side. The scent of horses mingled with that of hewn wood and polished leather. The hearth radiated heat and comfort.
Xavier idly thought about the treasure of Ahsakard—the golden sand squirrel he had found in Drehana. Since learning from Lord Bal that the little figure was worth several fortunes, Xavier wanted to inspect it more closely. But that could surely wait for the morning. Everything could wait. Surely, it would be okay if Xavier remained in the stable, just a little while longer, and kept his eyes closed.
Sedona’s voice was tainted with urgency and concern.
A firm hand on Xavier’s shoulder was shaking him awake.
Xavier’s eyes snapped open. His vision was filled with Sedona’s hairy face. Xavier saw something in the big man’s eyes that he had never seen before—something that scared Xavier.
“Sedona, what is it?”
“M’Lord, there are marauders on th’ grounds! Bandits! They’re inside th’ castle!”
Xavier was on his feet in an instant, all vestiges of sleep dropping from his shoulders like a discarded cloak.
“What happened, Sedona? How long was I asleep?”
As Xavier spoke, he strode between rows of nervous horses toward his gear at the other end of the stable, Sedona hovering anxiously in his wake.
“Few hours m’Lord. Was jus’ gettin’ ready t’ turn in m’self. Heard some screams, looked ou’side… Saw abou’ twenty of ‘em runnin’ through the fron’ doors o’ th’ castle. Came an’ woke yeh straigh’away!”
Xavier could barely hear Sedona’s words over the pounding in his ears. Marauders! He buckled his dagger onto his wrist, fingers shaking slightly, mind racing. Twenty men was no simple group of thieves—twenty men was a raiding party. Why would they be entering the castle, where there was nothing of great value? It would make more sense for them to be pillaging the storehouse, filled with the bounty of the wheat harvest, or the forge, whose walls were lined with shiny new weapons and armor. There was no reason for them to be assaulting the castle, unless…unless they knew about the treasure of Ahsakard.
Drawing his sword and throwing the scabbard back to the table, Xavier sprinted for the door, wrenched it open, and drew a lungful of winter air.
Xavier turned to see Sedona in the doorway, uncertain and afraid, large hands clenching the haft of a wood-cutting axe.
“Shall I accompany yeh t’ th’ castle?” he asked.
“Stay with the horses, Sedona. You are the keeper of the steeds of Fallen Sky, master of the greatest stable in the Two Kingdoms.”
The big man straightened, and the uncertainty fled from his face like a shadow lifting. Xavier laid a hand on Sedona’s shoulder and nodded to him once before turning back to the night.
Callous winds bit through Xavier’s clothes and into his flesh, but he paid them no more notice than the icy daggers that pierced his throat with every breath. The castle—his castle—lay ahead, looming out of the darkness, violated and defiled. The front doors hung open and several crumpled figures lay around the entrance.
Xavier’s heart pounded as he neared the first of these motionless forms. The glazed eyes of a man Xavier did not know stared upward into the long midnight. The shaft of a goose-feathered arrow protruded from his middle. Xavier recognized the arrow as the same kind his team used for archery practice at the estate.
Three more bandits had met their demise outside the doors of the castle, pierced by the same arrows as the first, their bodies slowly freezing in the dark. All of them had black scarves tied around their left arms. As Xavier stepped over the last body, lying right across the threshold, the man suddenly groaned and reached out. Xavier jumped back and stared at the fallen marauder, whose eyes were wild and uncomprehending. The brightness of the man’s blood was startling against the white purity of the snow beneath him.
More than slightly disturbed, Xavier skirted the dying man and moved into the castle. Xavier had been in hundreds of fights. At university, he had spent entire days sparing with his friends. He had participated in tournaments and trained with renowned swordsmasters. But Xavier had never—not once—entered into a fight with the aim of taking his opponent’s life.
Gripping his sword a little tighter, Xavier crept through the entrance hall. Abrupt, chaotic sounds echoed from deep within the castle; a cry of pain here, a rallying call there, clanging metal reigning over all. Once or twice, Xavier thought he heard Gustave’s commanding voice rising above the din.
Following the noise of combat, Xavier hurried through corridors until he reached the grand staircase. He could now clearly hear the bitter sounds of fighting coming from near the kitchen. But he also saw muddy tracks leading up the staircase in the opposite direction. Xavier again thought of Ahsakard’s golden squirrel, and wondered if whoever was pillaging his estate could possibly know about it. Xavier’s bedchamber—and the treasure of Ahsakard—were at the top of the stairs.
Xavier took the stairs two at a time, without fully realizing that he was turning his back on the battle in the kitchen. On the second-floor landing, he was surrounded by heavy tapestries and dark wood. At the far end of the hall, the door to Xavier’s bedchamber stood ajar, and the uneven light emanating from it betrayed movement within.
Xavier crept down the passage, heart pounding, sword clenched in a white-knuckled grip. At the door to his room, Xavier paused and peered inside.
A single man wearing plate armor was crouched over Xavier’s trunk with his back to the door. Like the bandits outside, he had a black scarf tied at his left elbow. The man was taking items out of the trunk and casting them aside. He suddenly turned his head and saw Xavier in the doorway. Xavier had time to glimpse cold, clever eyes before the man snapped the visor of his helmet shut, leapt to his feet, and drew a sword.
“Lord Xavier!” Cold Eyes bellowed, his voice tinny and muffled by the helmet. “Give me the treasure of Ahsakard and I’ll call off the attack!”
In response, Xavier moved into the room and dropped into a defensive crouch. He could hear Cold Eyes laughing behind his visor.
“Actually,” the armored man chortled, “I prefer it this way.”
Xavier moved. So did Cold Eyes. The two men met in the middle of the room with a sound like the sky splitting, and thus began the gruesome dance of combat. Xavier whirled and wove, jabbing and parrying, arming sword singing deathly secrets as it cut the air.
Xavier poured every ounce of his fear, frustration, and anger into strike after vicious strike, until all but the rhythm of battle was driven from his mind. Steel resounded against steel, boots beat a furious cadence against the floor, and the men grunted and cried with exertion, surprise, and distress.
Xavier scored hit after hit against Cold Eyes, but every blow skimmed harmlessly off his armor. Becoming desperate, Xavier inverted his sword, grasped the naked blade with both hands, and swung the weapon like a club with all his might.
A solid thunk rewarded Xavier as the pommel of his sword connected squarely with Cold Eyes’ helmet. The armored man reeled, caught off guard. Knowing he had only seconds, Xavier dropped his sword, drew the dagger from his wrist, and launched himself at Cold Eyes, intending to find the gap between the man’s breastplate and pauldron.
But he was a fraction of a second too slow. Before Xavier could complete his strike, Cold Eyes’ heavy gauntlet clouted him on the jaw and knocked him to the floor.
Dazed and disoriented, Xavier gazed up from the floorboards of his own bedchamber into a passionless visor of steel, behind which he imagined those cold eyes glinting in triumph. The armored man raised his sword, Xavier lifted his arm to shield himself, and then—and then—
And then Tempe happened.
There she was, striding over the threshold, eyes tossing like the sea in storm, dark and terrifying and deep. She had buckled a breastplate over her nightclothes and brandished a morning star. For a moment, Xavier thought that Tempe must be a phantasm, a product of pre-death delirium. But Cold Eyes had seen her also, and turned to face his new opponent.
Tempe lunged at Cold Eyes, her body uncoiling like a mountain cat’s. The two combatants came together, broke apart, and came together again in furious clashes. Xavier was pushing himself off the floor when he saw Tempe strike at Cold Eyes’ knee, saw the spikes of her morning star bite through his armor. As Cold Eyes cried out in pain, Xavier hurtled into him, bearing him to the ground. Shoving a hand underneath the man’s helmet, Xavier ripped it from his head and threw it aside. Tempe swung her morning star a final time, and Cold Eyes’ face collapsed with a horrible wet crunch.
For the space of several heartbeats, Xavier just lay on the floor, breathing, living. Tempe sank onto the corner of the four-poster.
“What’s happening downstairs?”
“I managed to get our people assembled and armed, and we made a stand in the parlor by the kitchen. When we started winning the night, I came to find you. Lord Gustave’s downstairs now, leading the defense.”
Xavier felt a rush of gratitude toward Gustave and Tempe, and a simultaneous flood of shame that he hadn’t been the one to lead his people, that he hadn’t even been part of the fight.
“We need to get down there,” Xavier mumbled as he struggled to his feet. Tempe rushed to assist him.
But at that moment, Gustave appeared in the doorway, blond hair dripping sweat, bastard sword dripping blood. With a single glance, he took in the scene inside the bedchamber and nodded at Xavier.
“We retook the castle. Killed about ten of them. The rest turned tail.”
Xavier nodded back and tapped a finger to his brow. Thank you.
“You have some damn fine people here, Xavier,” Gustave continued softly. “Fought like hell.”
“How many lost?” Xavier breathed, barely louder than a whisper, unable to meet his friend’s eyes.
When Gustave didn’t answer, Xavier looked up. Gustave, his oldest friend, had steel in his expression and sorrow in his eyes.
“How many?” Xavier repeated.
Xavier led Christian from the stable, loaded with saddlebags and bundles. The entire estate had assembled on the snow-covered lawn in the shadow of the castle to bid Xavier farewell. They stood in silent ranks, looking at Xavier as if he were still their lord. As if he were still a lord at all.
“Am I to understand that you weren’t even in the castle at the time of the attack?”
Xavier met Walden’s gaze, and the sad disappointment in his mentor’s eyes was worse than anything Walden could have said.
“After returning from Lord Bal’s party,” Xavier confirmed, “I fell asleep in the stable.”
Walden nodded to himself and looked away, fingers tapping out a pattern on the table between the two men.
“So, I have Gustave to thank for preventing what could have been much more damage?”
“Gustave…and Tempe…and—” Xavier paused.
And Prescott, who at the first sign of trouble, had sprinted to the top of the tower above the castle doors and rained arrows down as the invaders broke in, delaying their entry by precious minutes.
And Page, who had treated the wounded and undoubtedly saved lives, with no training other than the words contained in the medical texts she liked to read in her spare time.
And all of them, Xavier thought, looking at his former team. None of them were soldiers, but they had all risen to defend their home. Ordinary people that had done extraordinary things. They were all heroes. Xavier had never been more proud of anyone, had never been more ashamed of himself.
Walden sighed, and it was the longest sigh Xavier had heard in his entire life. There was enough wind in Walden’s sigh to carry the king’s fleet all the way to Drummer’s Door.
“We have a plan in place,” Xavier said, desperate to make Walden believe in him again. “In the spring, we’re going to put a portcullis on the castle and fortify all the ground-level doors and windows. We’re going to add—”
“Xavier!” Walden’s expression was pained. “Do you understand that three of your people have died?”
“I…” Xavier deflated all at once.
“You have shown an incredible degree of negligence,” Walden said. “By bringing this stolen relic—this treasure of Ahsakard—to your estate, you put every one of your people in danger.”
Xavier opened his mouth, but Walden waved him silent.
“I remember telling you,” Walden went on quietly, “that every one of the men on these grounds would give their life for you—because of their love for you. Now, three of them have.”
A long pause. Xavier kept his mouth shut this time.
“You would have made a great lord, Xavier. You were a great lord.”
“Walden, what are you saying?” Xavier’s stomach turned over.
“You have left me no choice.” Walden looked like he actually might cry. “I am rescinding your title and taking Fallen Sky from you. You’re no longer a lord, Xavier.”
Tempe stood at the head of the assembly, shoulders back, chin up, hands clasped behind her back. Xavier knew that Tempe had practically begged Walden to pardon him. Gustave had also gone to Walden, downplayed his own laudable role, and pointed out that the night would have been much worse had Xavier not so diligently trained his team in defensive combat. But nothing had swayed Walden’s mind.
As Xavier came to a stop before Tempe, she said, “Take care of yourself, my Lord.”
“I’m not your lord anymore,” Xavier answered with a halfhearted smile.
“You’ll always be the lord of Fallen Sky, even when you’re not,” Tempe replied, running a hand along Christian’s jaw in a thoughtful way. “There’s not one among us who blames you for what happened, Xavier, and not one among us agrees with Walden’s decision. I hope you know that.”
Xavier nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“We made something for you,” Tempe said, bringing her other hand from behind her back. “We just finished it this morning.”
The mace Tempe held out was magnificent. Xavier could hardly believe that it had been produced at the estate’s forge. He took the weapon and swung it in a slow arc, feeling the weight of its flanged head, the polished sheen of its wrapped handle. The name Godric was inscribed just above the grip.
“Godric,” Xavier read, looking at Tempe. “What does it mean?”
Tempe just smiled. “When the time is right, I expect that its meaning will be revealed to you.”
Suddenly, Xavier and Tempe were clasped in each other’s arms. Their embrace was strong and fierce, and not unlike the embrace siblings would share to bid one another farewell after a long journey. But Tempe was not Xavier’s sibling. And her hair brushed against his cheek. And he held her for perhaps a few seconds too long. And when he finally stepped back and looked into Tempe’s eyes, Xavier saw the ocean—tranquil, warm, and still.
Tearing his eyes from Tempe, Xavier turned to look for a final time at the people who were no longer his subjects and the lands that were no longer his home. And since any words he could have uttered would have been far too cheap for the occasion, Xavier tucked Godric into his tack, mounted Christian, and rode away from Fallen Sky.
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