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Authors: Michael Wallace

The Golden Griffin (Book 3)

BOOK: The Golden Griffin (Book 3)
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The Golden Griffin

by

Michael Wallace

 

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Michael Wallace

Cover Art by Glendon Haddix at streetlightgraphics.com
 

Click here to sign up for Michael Wallace's new release list
and receive a free copy of his novella, Trial by Fury. This list is used only to announce new releases and not for any other purpose.
 

 

The Dark Citadel Series

Book #1 –
The Dark Citadel
 

Book #2 –
The Free Kingdoms
 

Book #3 – The Golden Griffin

 

 

Chapter One

Darik drew his sword as he rode into the village. Knights Temperate flanked him on either side. Riding to his right was Whelan’s grim-faced brother, Roderick. On his left, a giant of a knight by the name of Brannock, who rode a huge destrier, jet black with flaring nostrils and a thundering stride.

A mob of forty or fifty villagers had gathered in the square and were screaming and waving scythes and shovels. They pressed at the village guard, two middle-aged men who tried to hold them back with pikes. A rickety scaffolding had been erected in the square, and a trembling thief stood with his hands tied behind his back while a hangman tried to get a noose around his neck. The thief ducked from side to side to keep the noose off his head. The hangman cursed, and another man punched the thief in the gut. He doubled over.

The villagers were making so much noise that they didn’t immediately notice the riders bearing down the muddy street toward them. After six weeks on the road, riding down brigands and remnants of Veyrian patrols hiding in the woods, Darik’s horse did not flinch from the shouting mob, but tossed people aside like they were burlap sacks filled with straw. People threw themselves out of the way, women screaming and men grabbing children to drag them clear.

The hangman at last got the noose around the thief’s neck. Darik was close enough now to see the sweat standing on the condemned’s forehead. He was a boy, really, about Darik’s own age. The hangman was an older man with a black beard shot with streaks of gray and missing two fingers on his right hand. He looked up from his work fixing the knot, and his look of triumph turned to alarm as his gaze met Darik’s.

Darik jumped from the saddle with his sword in hand. That time in summer where he had sparred with Whelan in the mountains outside Daria’s aerie now felt like another life. At that point, he was as likely to lop off his own leg as land a blow against an enemy. The sword now became an extension of his arm and shoulder muscles.

The hangman lifted his hands in supplication, and in that moment Darik saw fear take the man entirely. His legs trembled, the blood drained from his face. Below, a woman screamed and fainted into the mud, and Darik knew without thinking that she was the man’s wife.

This is what I’ve become. A killer. A feeder of souls to the Harvester.

But killing was not his task today. The sword sliced through the rope. The thief fell to his knees with a sob of relief.

The crowd fell silent as Roderick and Brannock strode up the steps behind Darik. Brannock hauled the thief to his feet and yanked the rope from his neck while Roderick accosted the hangman. He fisted the man’s jerkin and shoved him against the horizontal crossbeam.

“Who is in charge here?”

The hangman sputtered, trying to respond, but unable to do so in his terror.

“I am, good Sir Knight,” a voice called out from below.

A young man pushed his way through the crowd and around the stomping, blowing war horses.

“Who are you?” Roderick asked coldly, eyes narrowed. “And why aren’t you—?”

He stopped as the man came into the open. One of his legs was missing at the knee, replaced by a peg, and he leaned against a crutch. He had a scar across his face, and it was still red and throbbing, meaning it was not some old injury, but likely earned during the Battle of Arvada that summer.

Darik knew that the captain had been on the verge of demanding why the young man wasn’t marching with the king’s army. Roderick’s demeanor changed and his voice softened.

“I apologize, my good man. Darik, help him up.” As Darik hurried down the stairs to obey, Roderick raised his voice. “The rest of you, disperse at once. There will be no hanging today.”

The crowd muttered, angry words passing from one person to the next, but they could hardly charge the gallows. Roderick alone could cut through this rabble. And what these people didn’t see, but could surely guess, was that a full company of knights rode up the road behind them and would be in the village in a few minutes.

Darik got the crippled man up to the raised platform, then took stock of the village. It was one of dozens he’d ridden through in the past two months. Here in northern Eriscoba, the homes were built of solid mud and timber around a central commons, typically with a stone keep on one side and a shrine to the Brothers on the other. This one had been built on a hill, with some natural defenses inherent in the location. It had no keep but was surrounded by a wooden palisade instead.

Roderick questioned the thief and the hangman while Brannock glared at them, sword in hand.

“Are we still in Northmor?” Darik asked the man with the peg leg.

“No, you’ve crossed into Cleftwell.” He gave a humorless smile. “You probably noticed the empty sheep pastures, saw the pillaged farms.”

“Northmor is also suffering,” Darik said. “The entire north country, much the same.”

“Not like this, not as close as we are to the Old Road.” He raised his voice and gave a pointed look at Roderick. “Brigands and highwaymen move openly and without fear.”

The captain turned with a scowl. “You had no right to hang this man.” He grabbed the thief by the jaw and turned the man’s head to show his reddish blond hair. “An Eriscoban. He belongs to the king. You know the law.”

“A law without enforcement is no law at all,” the man with the peg leg said.

“That’s why we’re here,” Darik said. “To clear the Old Road of thieves.”

“Who are you, anyway?” Roderick asked. “One of the eorl’s sons?”

“No, his sons march with King Whelan. And Eorl Cleftwell is dead these two weeks. My name is Corvis, and I was Cleftwell’s steward.”

“The eorl is dead?” Darik asked. They’d planned to continue north this evening to stay with Cleftwell on the edge of the moors, and from there set out for the Old Road in the morning.

“Aye, and his castle sacked. A band of thieves gained the castle gate by subterfuge and there weren’t enough men left to fight them off.”

“And you?” Roderick asked. “How did you survive?”

  “I hid in the dungeon with the kitchen maids until the thieves had set the castle on fire and fled with their pillage.”

Roderick snorted. “Well, don’t sound so proud about it, Corvis.”

“I’m not proud. I’m ashamed.” He shifted his weight against his crutch. “But I didn’t see how giving my life would have helped matters.”

“It might have helped your honor,” the captain said. “And when good men cower, thieves profit.”

“Cleftwell is on the verge of collapse, Sir Knight,” Corvis said. His tone was respectful, but grim. “The able-bodied men have gone to war. The harvest rots in the fields. Griffins come down from the mountains to devour our sheep, and there’s no one to drive them off. Brigands infest the hill country. The dead rise from their graves.”

Darik leaned forward at this last part. “What do you mean, rise from the grave?”

“Never mind wights,” Roderick said. “The Harvester will do his reaping in his own time.” The captain turned to the hangman. “You, leave. Brannock, hold the thief until I’ve decided what to do with him.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Darik, a word.”

Roderick put a gloved hand on Darik’s shoulder and guided him down the stairs to the grassy common. The villagers were already dispersing. Some of the anger had faded from their faces, replaced by resignation.

“What did Corvis mean by the dead?” Darik said. “That didn’t sound like wights to me.”

“These northerners are a superstitious lot. Almost as bad as Veyrians. Or maybe it’s some new witchcraft—these are strange times. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Yes?”

“You’re a young man, Darik. Too young. I don’t mean that as an insult, but what does that say when you’re my wisest counselor?”

“It says that your brother left you with a lot of sharp swords and dull minds.”

A smile broke over Roderick’s face, then was replaced by the dour worry that had encamped there since summer. “Yes, quite. We’ve lopped off far too many heads. Our victory at the Citadel was so crushing, so overwhelming that I thought the war would be over at one swoop. Ride gloriously through the countryside, hacking down a few Veyrian survivors and we’d be back in time to drink our harvest mead with our feet propped up by the hearth.”

“I have no stomach for this, either.”

“Yes, I know. You’d rather be with Whelan assaulting the Dark Citadel itself. Or, barring that, training with your wizard friend. Learning ancient wisdom and fearful incantations. It’s not for me, but I understand the appeal.”

Neither of those things were precisely true, Darik thought as Roderick continued talking. What he dreamed about was flying. When he was riding his horse, he could almost feel the powerful haunches of a griffin beneath him, except it was so different being in the sky, above everything. The countryside spread beneath him like a magical map, the lurch in his stomach as the griffin dropped screaming toward an enemy. And he thought of Daria, her black hair flying behind her, a look of joy on her face. It all seemed so far away now.

“Well?” Roderick asked.

Darik jerked from his thoughts. “What did you say?”

Roderick looked irritated. “Pay attention when I’m speaking.”

“I apologize, Captain.”

“I want your opinion. What do we do about the thief?”

“Is he guilty?”

“There’s no question,” Roderick said. “Didn’t even deny it, only claimed he stole the cow because his family was starving. Never mind that the old woman he stole it from would likely die this winter without her milk cow—when people were desperate they did desperate things. But by the law of the land, she has the right to demand his death, and she did. That means the king’s justice. And, since the king is warring in foreign lands, that means it’s up to me to uphold the law.”

A clump of some twenty knights rode into the village square. They wore battered breastplates and torn tunics. Their eyes were hard from weeks of battle and life on the road.

Behind them came the thief’s brother, who’d ridden in a panic to find the Knights Temperate and beg them to save his brother. He rode a plow horse that awkwardly carried a saddle. The thief’s brother gripped the reins with his remaining hand. He’d lost the other in the war, plus his forearm to just below the elbow. With the bulk of the healthy male population east with Whelan’s army, it seemed that every other man who remained was missing a limb.

A woman with a basket of apples approached the knights, offered to sell them for a few coppers. Another woman tried to interest them in staying in the ramshackle inn, not knowing that the knights didn’t intend to spend the night in town. The knights waved them off.

Darik turned back to Roderick. “We can’t send the thief to Arvada. We can’t spare a guard.”

“No, I suppose not.” Roderick sighed. “It would take five minutes to recall the hangman. The rabble will be delighted. Should I do it?”

“I don’t know.”

Darik eyed the thief’s brother, who jumped down from his mare and hurried to the gallows. Brannock wouldn’t let him up the stairs, but thief and brother shouted back and forth to each other. Corvis, the eorl’s steward, stood to one side, leaning against his crutch and scowling at the two knights.

Do your duty, that look said.

And Darik knew that if they let this thief go, it would only make matters worse when the knights rode out of Crestwell. The brigands would grow more bold, the depredations would increase, because the punishment had been too soft.

“I can’t order his death,” Darik said. “Maybe he deserves it. I don’t know. But I’ve had enough killing without watching a hanging, too.”

“A whipping, then.”

“No, that’s not enough. You could offer him Sanctuary.”

Roderick rubbed at his stubbly beard. “I won’t, but you could.”

“Me?”

“You have that right as a member of the Brotherhood. But if you do, accept the responsibilities. You understand what that means?”

“I do.”

“Then make the offer, if you wish.”

Darik turned it over. Misjudge and he’d be tracking this young man on his own, to cut him down in the name of the Brothers. Could he trust the thief to travel alone and on foot to the Citadel and beg Sanctuary? Doubtful. The young man had stolen and butchered a widow’s milk cow during a time of hardship and famine.

“Be quick about it,” Roderick said. “We’ve already spent too long in this village. Hours of hard riding await before we reach our destination. Choose.”

BOOK: The Golden Griffin (Book 3)
2.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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