Authors: Patrick W. Carr
Tags: #Fantasy, #FIC042080, #FIC009000, #FIC009020
Â© 2013 by Patrick W. Carr
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansâfor example, electronic, photocopy, recordingâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Lookout Design, Inc.
Author represented by The Steve Laube Agency.
This one goes to the men in my life:
To my father, Joe William Carr, who awoke in me an appreciation of and love for a well-told tale.
To Joe Si Carr,
who was and is my brother and friend through all the craziness of being Air Force brats and after.
And to my sons:
Patrick, Connor, Daniel, and Ethan.
Every father wants his sons to surpass himâyou do.
WEAT, HOT AND SALTY,
flowed into Errol's eyes in the sticky heat of the early fall afternoon. He forced a quick blink to shed the distraction, not daring to risk the split second it would take to wipe his brow. A welt as long as his hand burned his left rib cage. Its twin worked to numb his right shoulder. The staff in his hands blurred and buzzed like an angry insect, nearly invisible, but as yet he had managed only a single strike against his opponent.
And he was tiring.
The man opposite him, stronger and fresher, darted like a snake, the blade of his sword disappeared as his arms corded and he struck. Errol parried at the last moment and flowed into a counterattack. The clack of staff against sword filled his ears like the sound of a drummer's rim beats.
For a moment he dared hope that he would penetrate his opponent's defense, but the attack exhausted itself, and he retreated to defend against those cursed whiplike strokes of the swordsman's counter.
Pain blossomed in his side as the sword found its mark. It was
no use. Four weeks of food and rest had nearly restored him to complete health after Sarin's attack against the kingdom. But “almost” was insufficient against such an opponent.
He backed away and grounded his staff. “Enough, Liam, I am no match for you todayâperhaps not ever again.” One of the watchmen, Lieutenant Goran, offered him a wad of cloth. He lifted his shirt. A trickle of blood tracked a crooked rivulet down his side. It could have been worse. Only his foolish prideâand Weir's goadingâhad impelled him to spar with Liam so soon after his release from the infirmary. All in all, he'd been lucky.
The blond-haired man across from him relaxed from his stance and favored him with the same smile that made every girl, woman, and widow in the kingdom swoon. On Errol the effect failed to dazzle, but it reminded him his fellow villager walked a bit closer to perfection than other men.
Liam inclined his head. “You're nearly as fast as you were before the attack.”
Captain Reynald nodded his agreement from his vantage point just to the side. “The lad speaks the simple truth. Had you sparred with any other manâ” he paused to glance at Weirâ“you would have won, easily. As it is, there are only two men I can think of that could best either of you. Merodach andâ”
“Naaman Ru,” Errol finished.
The captain grunted. “Yes.”
Eagerness flared in Liam's eyes. “How good is he, Errol?”
“I don't know. I never saw him in an actual fight, and we never sparred. I'm just as happy about that, though. His best student, Gram Skorik, pushed me to my limit. Rokha, his daughter, told me Ru bested Skorik without breaking a sweat.”
Liam's eyes shone. “Wouldn't it be glorious to go against him, the best swordsman in the world?”
A catarrhal laugh erupted from Errol's throat before he could stop it. “Glorious? No, I don't think so. The last time I saw Ru, he had naked steel in his hand and was furious with me.”
Errol panicked as he said this last and cursed himself for a fool. His admission might lead to questions about his escape
from the caravan master he could not answer. Before Reynald or Liam could inquire after the means of his deliverance from the legendary swordsman, Adora, flanked by Weir and a dozen ladies of the court who gazed in longing toward Liam, joined the trio.
“Are you well?” the princess asked him.
His breath caught at the sight of herÂ .Â .Â . as always. The green of her eyes unmade him, so he busied himself with his staff, twisting the knobblocks back onto each end. “A couple of welts. They're a small price to pay for letting Weir goad me into a match with Liam.”
At the mention of his name, Lord Weir elbowed Errol on his way to congratulate Liam on his victory. “It's too bad you called a halt, peasant. A couple of blows to the head might have taught you respect for your betters.”
Errol made a show of looking around Weir and over his head. “If I see any I'll let you know.”
Weir yanked his hand toward the pommel of his sword, as if to draw.
Errol darted to his right. He needed space. His eyes caught Weir's, and his hands slid to the ready position on his staff. Reynald's voice came from behind him.
“Please do, Lord Weir. The minute you bare steel in this yard you free him from restraint. Don't forget, he's an earl now.”
Weir slammed his sword back into its scabbard. “He'll always be a filthy peasant.” He spat and brushed past.
Errol watched him leave, didn't relax his grip on the staff until Weir and his friends disappeared from the yard. “Why does he hate me so much?” he asked Adora.
“You have something he wants,” she said.
Before he could ask for an explanation, the crowd split and a wave of bows announced the arrival of a newcomer of importance. He pulled his gaze from Princess Adora with reluctance to see Enoch Sten, Illustra's primus approaching. The set of his shoulders and the compressed line of his mouth hinted at displeasure. The pair of watchmen who trailed behind him
kept their hands on their swords, ready to draw in an instant. Sarin's treacherous legacy had left more than bloodstains in the hallways.
Errol bowed in greeting. “Primus.”
Enoch Sten stopped within arm's reach and fanned his florid face with one hand. “I'm not made for haste, my boy. Haste is for younger men who can still afford notions of self-importance. Ah well. When the Judica commands haste, even the head of the conclave must hurry.” His shoulders bunched under his tunic with mirth, and he greeted Adora, the king's niece, with a nod. “My dear, your radiance outshines the sun.” The primus simpered over the object of Errol's affections for a moment before turning serious. His smile drained away. “Errol, you are commanded before the Judica.”
“Me?” His heart skipped like a calf. The proceedings of the benefices' council stymied him. The church's highest-ranking clergy were assembled to determine the process for choosing King Rodran's successor. According to Martin they seemed more intent on arguing arcane points of church law than in choosing the next king.
Enoch Sten, thin and gangly, like a scarecrow with tufts of gray hair that defied grooming, licked his lips. “They're talking about you.”
Adora's hand wormed its way into Errol's, where it fluttered like a trapped bird. She paled. Her reaction frightened him more than Sten's comment.
“What do I have to do with choosing the next king?”
An amused chuckle put a slight bend in Sten's posture as it drifted up from his midsection. “Ah, Errol, your innocence becomes your youth, but it is a trait you can ill afford just now.” The primus turned toward Adora as he took Errol by the elbow. “Your Highness, will you excuse us?”
As they traced the winding route through native-granite hallways toward the hall of the Judica, Sten's voice adopted a cadenced pattern, as if instructing a young group of postulates to the conclave. “This isn't flattery, Errol, though I can see that you might
be flattered by the attention. You really don't want churchmen talking about you.”
“Why would they be interested in me? What are they saying?”
Sten cleared his throat with a grimace. “Short questions with long answers, my boy.”
“But why me? Isn't selecting Rodran's successor more important?”
“Who knows the minds of menâespecially the benefices. Sometimes it is easier to argue over the lesser concerns. But they will get to it eventually. Archbenefice Canon has the situation in hand.”
Primus Sten shook his head as if dispelling a fog. “Illustra might well fall apart without a strong, ready leader, and the kingdom of Merakh would welcome such chaos. We must have a king. Even a bad kingâand we've had our share of thoseâis better than none.”
The process seemed a trifle ridiculous to Errol, like taking the long way around the Sprata instead of taking the Cripples when the stones were safe and dry. “Why doesn't the archbenefice just tell the rest of the benefices what to do? Isn't he the head of the church?”
The primus smiled and stroked the wayward grizzle on his chin. “He cannot. Think of the archbenefice as first among equals.”
They left the halls of the watch and emerged onto the green that separated the kingdom's three powersâmonarchy, conclave, and church. Up ahead the soaring cathedral and attached buildings loomed over the landscape proclaiming the preeminent power of the ecclesia. Errol shivered as they passed into the shadow of the spire.
The primus guided him toward the main entrance of a massive building beside the cathedral. The dressed blocks of stone rose above him as he approached, and he suddenly felt small and insignificant next to the giant gray slabs. An arched entrance, wide enough for ten broad-shouldered guards to march through abreast, awaited them. Just inside, four pair of church guards dressed in red with purple armbands stood with sharpened pikes.
As Errol and the primus ventured to pass through, a functionary stepped from the shadows and raised his hand palm out, signaling them to stop.
“Your pardon, Primus.” The man bowed, a marginal bend from the waist, less than what Errol would have expected the head of the conclave would receive.
If Enoch Sten noticed the slight, he gave no sign. “Is there a problem? This is Earl Stone; we are commanded here by the archbenefice.”
The functionary nodded agreement, his dark eyes heavy-lidded. “The earl will have to surrender his staff. None but the watch and church guards may enter the Judica armed.”
Errol turned to present the black armband that proclaimed him an honorary captain of the watch. “Will this do?”
The functionary shook his head. “It will not. I am under orders to ensure you do not enter the Judica under arms.”
The hackles on Errol's neck rose as alarm traced an icy finger down the nape of his neck. Why would they insist on making him defenseless? “Then I will not enter.”
Four of the guards closed in behind him, their pikes leveled at his back. “You are commanded before the Judica,” the man said. “You will attend.”
The primus clutched Errol's arm just above the elbow. “There is no choice in this. Give them your staff.”
The churchman stepped forward and took the polished ash from him. His fingers ached at their sudden emptiness. Helpless, defenseless, he rounded on the head of his order. “Did you know they were going to take my staff?”
At Sten's nod, he went on. “Why didn't you warn me?”
“Because you might not have come, and whatever else we of the conclave may be, we are servants of the church.”
“Not we,” Errol said.
“Quiet, boy,” the primus snapped. “Any word you speak against the church can be used against you in the Judica.”
Errol fumed. When he hesitated the guards moved closer, the points of their pikes now only inches from his back. With a
snarl, he gave a curt nod of acquiescence to the functionary. The guards retreated a pace but kept their weapons leveled. Why was he being escorted like a prisoner?
He walked the long corridor toward the Judica's meeting hall. Questions tumbled through his mind like lots in the drum. Why had the primus been sent to retrieve him? Where was Martin? Every time Errol dealt with the church in the past, Martin had been there to guide himâgiving him the words to say, helping him to keep his tongue in check.
They rounded a sharp turn, and the doors to the domed hall of the Judica rose before him. The functionary stepped forward to speak with a detachment of guards at the entrance. The pikemen maintained their vigilance as if they expected Errol to bolt at any moment. Then the functionary gave a curt wave of his hand to motion him over.
Errol nodded and moved to step forward. The primus grabbed his arm, hauled him backward. “A word of warning, Errol. This isn't the informality of the conclave or the camaraderie of the throne room. In many ways these churchmen run the kingdom. Most of them are good men, but some of them are sharks. With the king dying, they smell blood in the water. Speak only when you're spoken to, be respectful, and don't lose your temper.”