The light rain soaks through Maelec’s black cloak, through his armor and padding, down to his skin. On his left side, he feels the stinging of water and sweat in the deep cut. He didn’t think it was severe, but nonetheless, he’ll staunch the bleeding as soon as time permits. He was careless, the young guard shouldn’t have had the opportunity to strike, much less even get close enough to strike. Maelec wonders if the boy had a family that will mourn for him, but only for a moment, as pain from the wound tightens his face, bringing him back to reality.
Keep Gralthalm has been breached. The inner courtyard is under Maelec’s control. He climbs the stone steps to the second floor landing with his five best templars, each at arms length, following him–their swords drawn, shields raised.
Reaching the landing that gives access to the drawbridge, he turns around and nods at two of his men who move past him to get better defensive positions. He overlooks the courtyard in the evening’s dim light, the darkened clouds making it more difficult to see the rest of his men. He squints trying to determine the casualties, both on his side and the keep’s guards. Twenty-three, that he could see, are down. Less than half appear to be his templars. Still, not a good number. His men were well trained, but this keep was fortified against attack.
The fires on the western walls caused by the trebuchets are dying down, in part due to the rain, but also because a few of his men formed a fire brigade. The keep’s location makes it valuable to the church.
Maelec imagines what it was like during the holy crusade nearly sixteen hundred years ago. Their armor wasn’t as sturdy, nor did they have today’s forging techniques to create superior weapons. But still, they were triumphant. The crusaders of that age vanquished powerful aberrations and evil heretics.
Today, with the One’s blessing, Maelec will have the pleasure of killing a heretic, Duke Kelden Gralthalm.
Turning to survey the keep’s three-story tower, Maelec is grateful that recent times have been hard on the duke’s finances. If this keep were fully guarded, at least a dozen bowmen would have advantage over this landing.
Smoke from several chimneys cut through the rain. A green-tinted smoke, almost glowing. Maelec takes a deep breath and puts on the face of determination.
“Heretic! We are here to deliver judgment!”
He steps between the two templars, grabs the latch, and leans into the heavy door. It doesn’t move. His men lend their shoulders, but still it doesn’t budge.
“Bring a ram!” Maelec calls down to one of the men in the courtyard.
A few moments later, eight soldiers arrive carrying a thick tree trunk, four men on either side. A metal cap with coarse spikes was fitted on the business end of the ram. They slam the ram-head into the door, for several minutes, even taking a short break, before the wood splinters. Maelec and his templars push past them.
Maelec confirms his suspicions after stepping through the doorway, careful to avoid the remains of the battered door. On the back of several large fragments, he sees silvery symbols etched into the wood. Many of them appear to be melting, sliding off the wood, creating pools of liquid metal beneath them.
Looking back to his men, Maelec gives them a warning, “Watch yourselves,” while pointing to the pools. “I’ve seen men braver than you die from simply touching that liquid.” He turns around as a sly grin over crawls over his face. I think that even scared some of the veterans.
Lanterns hang on the masonry, lighting the entranceway to the keep’s manor. A few paces in front of Maelec stands two open doors that lead into the dining hall. To the south, two closed doors face outward. And to his left, a hallway heads east.
“You two, check those out,” Maelec commands while pointing to the doors on his right. “You and you, head that way,” indicating the hallway. He looks over his shoulder to the one templar left, “Follow me.”
Maelec and his men cautiously move to their respective search areas, at the ready. In a few moments, each team calls out their findings.
“Clear here, as well.”
“I think these two are libraries.”
Maelec’s ears perk up after hearing this report. Finding nothing of interest in the dining hall, he pulls the two doors at the northeastern corner inward. Standing in the adjoining hall between the eastern library and Maelec’s position, the young templar flinches nervously.
To his immediate left, Maelac sees the stairway that leads to the third floor.
“Kelden! Are you hiding up there?!”
He calls for the rest of the templars as he ascends the stairs. The acrid smell of paper and oil burning cascades down the steps, funneled by the stairwell. Maelec’s heart starts beating faster making his wound throb. He regrets that he did not take the time to cauterize it.
A shadowy, greenish light flickers at the top of the stairs. Maelec grips the hilt of his sword so tight that he can feel the leather weave through his gloves. The stairs open into the upper foyer, which turns eastern. The eerie light emanates from two rooms on the northern wall. Maelec manages to stifle a cough from the smoke, while two of his templars start hacking behind him. Around the stairwell, two great doors block entrance to what Maelec assumes is the duke’s quarters.
A glance at the hinges tells Maelec the doors open outward into the short hallway. No cover. “You two, open the doors,” he says quietly.
He motions for the other three to get behind him some twelve feet from the doors.
The first templar grabs the handle. Maelec hears the sizzle, just as the templar stumbles back and crumbles to the floor. Steam rising from his charred hand, the life burned out of him.
Maelec bows his head, offering a prayer to the One, “Bestow upon us your blessing so we may be victorious in your name.”
He looks to the frightened templar still near the doors. “Open them,” he commands. “You have nothing to fear.”
Maelec’s words bolster the templar’s courage and he could see the strength returning to his limbs. He reaches out, boldly, grabbing both door handles. Nothing happens. He turns back to Maelec and the others, and nods.
The templar pulls the doors wide open. Lightning flies out of the room. It strikes the air in front of him, showering him and the short hallway in sparks. The men are blinded. The crackling and sizzling energy ring in the men’s ears. The templar is unharmed. The One protected him. He moves inside the room, still half-blind, and settles into a defensive stance.
Maelec moves in to the left, with the other three maneuvering to the right. Their collective gaze focuses on the man in the middle of the room.
“Leave now! Or I shall use all my power to destroy you!” the man shouts, his hands circling a ball of energy at chest level. The light from it brightly illuminates the room, casting shadows on the man’s features.
Maelec senses the duke is afraid, though he still puts on a good show. Sorcerers have always had a flair for the dramatic.
“You know that we cannot,” Maelec replies. He takes a quick glance around the room. They are in the duke’s chambers. A small table and three chairs in the corner directly in front of Maelec. A canopied bed in an antechamber to the right. Maelec catches movement by the bed. The duke’s wife perhaps?
“If you surrender now, we won’t punish your wife.”
The duke utters words in an unknown language. The words are fleeting, barely touching memory at all. The magister’s language. Maelec has only heard it once, when he was living in the abbey.
Small lightning bolts cut through the air from the duke’s outstretched right hand. Maelec stands bold, as does all of his templars. Except one. The templar’s faith is shaken by the sorcerer’s power and the lightning strikes him in the chest. Above the noise of the lightning, Maelec hears the sound of the templar hitting the floor, the armor and shield clanking.
The duke’s stance relaxes. His is weakening. Now! Maelec rushes past the templar on his left and swings his sword two-handed. The duke tries to evade, but the blade slashes through cloth and flesh of his left arm. Maelec follows through, spinning around, striking in the middle of the duke’s back with the sword hilt.
The duke stumbles forward falling over one of the chairs near the table. Then, out from behind the bed, a red-haired woman dressed in an elegant verdant gown runs toward the duke.
“No! Please, leave us alone!” she yells, tears streaming down her face. The closest templar begins to intercept, but Maelec holds up his hand. She reaches the duke and helps him to his feet, getting blood on the front of her gown.
The duke’s wife looks Maelec in the eyes, “Why can’t you just leave us alone?”
Something about her made Maelec feel uneasy. But he kept that to himself. “It’s too late for that now. Your husband knew the penalty for practicing magery. The church hasn’t changed its position in over two thousand years.”
Two of the templars surround the duke and his wife. The third alternates between watching the duke and the outer hallway.
“Let her live and I will submit–”
“What!? Kelden, no!–”
“Farese, stop it. I am outnumbered. And I am injured. I accepted my fate long ago.” The duke pulls away from his wife’s grip. His left arm limp at his side, he wraps his right around her back giving her a loving hug. He lets go, but she grabs his face and gives him a deep kiss.
“I will miss you, my love,” she whispers.
The duke turns back to Maelec. “Do you swear to let her live, unharmed and unspoiled?”
“I swear.” Maelec wasn’t sure what he was going to do with her. Only the duke appears to be a sorcerer. And she is beautiful.
“Swear by your god.”
“Fine. I swear by the Holy One that your wife shall be unharmed.”
The duke steps forward, a handprint of blood on his clean-shaven face from the kiss. A templar steps up from behind, grabbing the duke’s shoulders, and kicks the back of his knees forcing the duke to his knees. The templar next to Maelec, sheaths his sword and puts down his shield, before getting a pair of iron shackles out of his bag. He moves forward and puts them on the duke’s forearms. He wraps the attached chain around the duke, pulling the duke’s upper arms tight against his torso, and secures it on the opposite band. The shackles have bars between them ensuring that, along with the chain, the captive cannot move his arms. The shackles were designed specifically for sorcerers.
Maelec breathes a quiet sigh of relief. The greatest danger is over.
“Take the lady out of the manor,” Maelec commands a templar. “She will be safe. But she does not need to know how you meet your fate.”
“Oh, she knows. Just as I do. When she is out of earshot, you’ll cut out my tongue to burn later. Probably reciting a prayer or two before you take up your sword and cut off my hands. Then you will kill me and steal my steal my ring.”
Besides the stealing of the ducal ring, the accurate description of Maelec’s orders sends his thoughts reeling. How does he know? Maelec manages to maintain an unsurprised countenance, but just barely.
“Go ahead, take her outside.” Maelec looks into her eyes as the templar moves her passed him. A chill climbs up and down his spine even after she is out of the room.
Maelec begins interrogating the duke. His surprise for the duke’s foreknowledge and his unknowing about the duke’s wife enrages him.
“Tell me. How did you know of the Rite of Elinguation? Tell me now!”
The duke grins. “Magisters still remember your unholy crusade and the vile tortures of your church.”
Maelec backhands the duke with a clenched fist knocking him to the side, spitting out blood onto the floor. The templar behind the duke sets him back up on his knees.
“Lord Baltheus will avenge my murder. He will avenge the murders of all magisters.”
Maelec is surprised again. He’s heard of this Lord Baltheus, in bedtime stories told to him as a child just his parents and their parents learned of him. A most evil sorcerer of great power. He was defeated during the holy crusade. There are laments in the church for all those who fell trying to defeat Lord Baltheus.
“That look on your face. That’s the look of fear, Maelec. It suits you well.”
That was the last thing the duke said. Maelec carried out the rite while reciting a prayer, exactly as the duke foretold. The duke did not scream during the rite. Nor did he scream when his hands were severed. Though, when Maelec shoved his sword into the duke’s chest, he did let out a sigh.
Maelec felt compelled to bend down and retrieve the ducal signet ring from the severed hand. He wiped off as much blood as he could before placing it in his coin pouch. He wasn’t sure why he picked it up.
While Maelec and his templars and the other soldiers searched the manor, the duke’s wife was kept in a room in the lower bailey, near the barracks. No visitors were allowed. Not even Maelec visited, though he was drawn to her.
For several days, they searched. Nothing was left unturned. They found the secret passage leading to the duke’s chambers from the second floor. In the libraries, they found numerous books and journals. Most were ordinary for a duke. However, blackened ashes of scrolls, some with a faint greenish color, were found quivering in the draft in several hearths. The duke’s diary was found in the library across from his chambers.
Within the pages, the duke had written about being approached by Lord Baltheus and his subsequent swearing of allegiance to him. He had drawn pictures of the tower that Baltheus built and hid with magic. Maelec tore out those pages. The book also described the bloodstone and its properties.
But the crystal was not found.
It had been four days since he had seen her. He needed to find the bloodstone. He hoped she knew and he hoped she would help him. Stepping beyond the two guards, he reluctantly entered her tent. His senses reeled when his gaze fell upon hers. What power does she possess over you, Maelec? He couldn’t answer his own question, so he posed a question to her.
“Where did the duke hide the bloodstone?”
“Here is it,” she said as she unclasped the necklace drawing the attached crystal out from her bosom.
Shocked, not only because it seems that his templars failed to search her, but also because she offered the bloodstone so freely. “Why give it up without a fight?”
“You can’t use it. Only magisters can activate its power. And I don’t want to fight you.”
Her eyes. Her words. Maelec was intoxicated by them. He moved forward and took the necklace from her. What he did next shocked him again. He moved closer to her, took her in his arms, and gave her the kiss that he had wanted to the first time he saw her.
She put her soft hands on his strong arms, caressing them, and returned a more passionate kiss. His desire overwhelmed his duty and training. And overwhelmed his faith. They moved over to the bed and spent the night in each other’s arms.
For nine months, Farese has been carrying his child. But tonight, it will be brought into the world. She will become a mother.
The midwives are coming into her chambers checking on her more frequently. She has been hurting for the last few hours. And the pains are coming quicker.
Lying on her back, her hips and legs are slightly raised by pillows. She thinks about Kelden. And about Maelec. Another pain comes and she winces. “Agh,” she moans before breathing in through her teeth. “Ow.”
The midwife next to the bed takes Farese’s hand in hers and calls for the others. Once the head midwife checks Farese, she leads the others in turning Farese over onto her knees and elbows, repositioning the pillows for comfort. Comfort is relative, for no sooner than they are finished fussing with the pillows, another pain comes. After it subsides, Farese does notice less pressure on her back, allowing her a slightly less painful time breathing.
A few minutes later, her water breaks washing some of the blood away from her gown. Then another hour passes with pain every few minutes.
Soon the midwives talk Farese through the delivery. She nearly bites through the leather strap in her mouth when she pushes the baby completely out. She passes out just as she hears the cries of her baby. Farese awakes on her back to pain in her abdomen and pelvis. The midwife brings her son over to her. She cradles him in her arms. He looks just like his father. Almost immediately, worry and fear contorts her face. Tears well up and slide off her cheeks.
I can make this work. Just like I made it here. Farese shores up her confidence just in time, as Maelec enters her chambers.
“Look, my husband. We have made a strong boy.”
Maelec leans in to see the child. “Just look at him. He will make a fine templar one day,” Maelec says, obviously proud of his accomplishment. After spending a few minutes caressing Farese’s forehead and looking at the child, he leaves.
I hope that gets easier.
Farese also hopes that Maelec never learns the truth–that the child is not his but Kelden’s.
Her mind wanders back nine months ago, to her duke’s keep. She and Kelden talked frantically as Maelec siege unfolded. They suspected a traitor. They weren’t sure if they were betrayed for gold or silver or simply for the favor of the church.
She watched Kelden as he placed a warding spell on the outer door. Then she and Kelden both threw scroll after scroll into the fires. Kelden told her what Lord Baltheus had predicted. Farese cried and pleaded with Kelden, but he insisted it must happen exactly that way. His child must be born. His magister bloodline must survive.
And so, Farese used her charms on Maelec, just as Kelden asked. After Maelec killed her beloved duke, she secretly mourned his loss.
She still mourns his loss.