Pilgrim’s Path: Bonus Prologue

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In order to further promote, tease, and torment my readers, I’m posting the rough draft of the second book in St. Gavin’s Ghost.  It’s called The Pilgrim’s Path.

[If you haven’t read the first book, um, you might want to look to that on Barnes and Noble or Kindle first.]

[‘Cause spoilers…. duh.]

Prologue

Evan clutched his cloak tight against the cold and ignored the subtle threat as he scanned the forest for signs of pursuit.  The crackle of the camp’s fire beckoned his chilled cheeks like a wanton, but he kept his back to the blaze.  Comfort was a watchman’s enemy as sure as sleep, and one followed the other as often as not.

There was no comfort to be found in the darkened forest in front of him.  Early winter frost turned bare branches into claws that shone with the firelight behind him.  They mocked him with proof that comfort was behind him with his brethren, wrapped in their skins and furs against the night.

He thought about the fire again, and grimaced.  He shifted slightly on the fallen log he’d chosen for his watch.  He slid a hand to the fat bag of coin that hung from his hip.  Coins clicked softly through the leather.

Evan smelled heat and mint before he heard the soft footsteps behind him.  A hand wrapped in black fur held out a steaming mug of tea.

That was worth a moment of cold.  He kept his eyes on the horizon, but scooted over enough to make room for his comrade on the watch.  Another pile of furs settled down, but the massive log did not shift.  They’d chosen this camp for the fallen Bayit Oaks from last year’s storm.

Evan sipped the tea, and it was almost enough to make him believe in the Saints once again.  Hot mint, sivermoss rind, and some spice he couldn’t name chased most of the winter chill from his ribs.  “Mm..  thanks.”

His companion nodded.  “Any sign?”

Evan spat by his feet.  “Fetch was right.  The Posse never follows us past Tanglewood Tower.”

The other grunted.  “We’re safe until they learn to track over naked rocks and pools.”

Evan snorted.  “Never happen.  They’re sheep.”  He patted the fat money bag.  “Three towns in riding distance, the whole damned world open at our backs, and local Knights too superstitious to try hard.”

“Sheared them today.”

Evan took another sip of the tea.  The warmth spread from his ribs down to his knees and elbows.  “Even sheared sheep stop bleating eventually.”  He nodded back at the campfire, which had finally gone silent in the distance.  “Which girl did you pick?”

His companion shrugged.  “Pick?  I’m patient.  When everyone is tired I can take all three.”

Evan snorted.  “Merchant daughters.  They’ll be nice and broken in by then.  Unless you want the boy.  He’s got some fight left in him.”

“Why do all the work myself?”

Evan snorted.  He closed his eyes and drank in the warm feeling that reached right down to his toes.  “Which wagon had the tea?  We’ve got to steal more of this.”

“That tea didn’t come from the wagons,” the man said.  “I brought it when I tracked you past Tanglewood Tower.”

The voice changed as it spoke, the rougher bur of Gray Mountain peasantry slid into something fancier, something refined.  Evan hadn’t been a highwayman for long without hearing that accent.

“Crown Lands!”

Evan leaped for his feet and blurred his hand down to the recurved blade in its sheathe.  Fur flew from his shoulders, but his body betrayed him. His hand slapped uselessly against his sword hilt at the same time that his knees buckled.  He knew that the ground was cold and hard against his cheek, and he could hear the snow crunch in his ear, but all he felt was the warmth.

Evan’s companion threw off his own furs.  His fur-lined armor held a simple sigil over a gray and black sash.  Evan knew the symbol.  Every man from the Crown Lands to the New Duchies knew that symbol.  The sheep looked to it in hope, but Evan’s bandit heart only felt terror like fire.

Terror, and creeping warmth that numbed his tongue and turned his eyelids to stones.

“An Dinas.”  The fabled tower’s name was a curse on Evan’s tongue.  “Poisoner.  Coward.”

The Knight shifted the curved sword in his sash and clapped his gloved hands together.  “Now now, there will be plenty of time to spit curses on the road back to town.  Get your rest.  You have a long ride ahead of you, and a trial, and a hanging unless I miss my guess.”

Evan’s eyes closed, but the last few sounds drifted through the warmth.

“Also, I have a boy of my own, but not in the sense that you mean.  Squire Brian, come give me a hand with the horses, but don’t drink the tea unless you want to sleep until noon tomorrow.  That was not permission.  If you make my forty year old back haul all the bandits onto horses you’ll dance forms until you can’t lift your sword.”

A boy’s voice, deep but fresh came from the forest Evan had just scanned, the trees where he had seen nothing.  “Yes, Sir Kenneth.  Of course, Sir Kenneth.”  There was no missing the disappointment in the tone.

Evan heard the Knight sigh.  “You know, Brian, there is nothing wrong avoiding a fight.  The Saints know that we have enough killing from necessity without adding more by preference.”

Evan tried to fight his way to his feet.  He knew in his mind that he had to run, had to get away.  There was no fighting the Knights of An Dinas.  Even Grave Kelly would run, but Grave Kelly hadn’t even cried out.  He was either dead with his throat cut in his sleep, or he’d drunk the damned Knight’s tea and slept through it all.  Evan should feel fear.  He waited for the white light of terror to shake off the drug and get him to his feet.

Evan tried to spit another curse, but the warmth was everywhere.  It was everything.

After the warmth came the darkness.

***

Sir Zedekiah Montblanc appreciated the warmth of the afternoon sun on his face, but he wasn’t going to show that comfort any more than he would show his irritation at the mountains’ early chill.

Granite Falls’ cobbled streets parted around him as peasants, merchants, and nobles saw the white tower of An Dinas on his breast, as if the sash and the sword were not motive enough.

Sir Zedekiah nodded at the parting crowd.  “So you see, Squire?  Comport yourself as a Knight.  Let your very air demand respect and you will have it.”

The boy chuckled slightly, and it sounded wrong in Sir Zedekiah’s ears.  It wasn’t that his Squire should not appreciate his wisdom.  But even after the funeral, three days in airships, and ten more on the road, Sir Zedekiah still expected to hear Alex’s voice at his side

But the familiar features were not there.  Squire Thomas had hair so dark it was black, and the fact he wore it instead of Alex’s light brown locks only made it seem darker to Zedekiah’s eyes.  Thomas’s jaws were angular and already shadowed with stubble after this morning’s shave, not Alex’s round childish features and smooth skin that made his age a lie.

Not that Alex would ever see eighteen.

Two words tripped through Sir Zedekiah’s mind.  The Pilgrim.  The vigilante’s name was pious, but he’d killed a Squire of An Dinas, and for what, to protect peasants?  Nemedian peasants?  Foreigners with nothing to contribute but taxes and subservience?

Zedekiah drew in a quick breath and let it out again.  He would catch the Pilgrim, see his blood on his sword, and then perhaps the sight of Alex’s smile would not haunt his dreams.

Whatever fire burned in Squire Thomas’ gray eyes, Zedekiah did not care about their source.  The intense young man was full of himself, but full of An Dinas.  He did his duty, and he had pledged his life to the plan that would save the kingdom.  That was enough.

But Thomas’s shorter, thicker build still seemed wrong.  None of An Dinas’ warriors were clumsy, but Thomas stomped up the streets as if conquering the steps, where Alex would have flowed across them like the wind.

Zedekiah let out a long breath and forced thoughts of his fallen Squire aside.  A more introverted man might have wondered how much of his anger came from the loss of the boy An Dinas had charged him to train into manhood, and how much came from his own wounded pride that someone had taken something that belonged to him.

Such was not Zedekiah’s nature, and it did not even occur to him to think along those lines.  Power mattered.  Power, position, and duty were the sources of his life’s purpose. If he took pride in those things, that was only proper.  If he expected others to take pride in them, well, An Dinas held the kingdom together, and without them humanity itself might not have survived on this planet.  The other Landings had never been found.  Salas and the Duchies might be all that remained on the land.

Strength, duty and honor had preserved it.  Strength, duty and honor would continue to preserve it.

The sight of swinging bodies swept through Sir Zedekiah’s train of thought.  They hung from gibbets in front of the heliograph tower, and they had not been there long.

“He got them,” Squire Thomas said.  “He got them all!”

Zedekiah heard the sound of admiration in the boy’s voice.  That would not do at all.  “Squire Thomas,” he said quietly.  “While you ride with me, you will never express public surprise at An Dinas’ success.  We are the Knights of An Dinas.  Everyone knows that no force can stand against us.  We are the swords of justice and serve the Saints.  While other ears can here, news that we have done our duty means nothing but that the sun has risen, will set, and the shifting skies will dance until it rises again.  It may seem a small thing, but An Dinas must lead and you will comport yourself accordingly, or I will remind you with howsoever much vigor you require.”

A man’s beard and muscles did not make Squire Thomas older than other sixteen-year-olds at heart.  Sir Zedekiah caught the flash of anger and resentment in those gay eyes, but he saw the discipline slam down over the expression, and a single eyebrow trembled to show their passing.

“Yes, sir.”  The Squire allowed none of the emotion into his voice.  That was a very promising sign.  “I understand completely.”

Zedekiah waited one more breath to let the lesson sink in, and then waved his hand.  “Run ahead and find Sir Kenneth or Squire Brian.  An Dinas heliographed them to await us.”

“Sir!”  Zedekiah’s new Squire stalked off into the crowd that watched the bodies twist in the wind.  Zedekiah saw that Thomas’ demeanor parted people before him.  It was not as fast or wide a path as a Knight command, but it was progress of a sort.

The crowds parted again a few minutes later, and Squire Thomas had two other men in An Dinas armor walking behind him.

Zedekiah thought that Sir Kenneth would serve An Dinas better in a warehouse than wandering the towers.  The older Knight had passed forty recently, and a comfortable weight around his middle matched the complacent smile in his eyes.  Average brown hair, average brown eyes, only another warrior would see the swordsman behind the shopkeeper’s air.  It was in the way he moved as if the weight meant nothing to his muscles, the way he never stepped out of balance.

The young man by Sir Kenneth’s side was in the middle of a heated discussion with his master, even though his head only came up to Kenneth’s shoulder.  Blond haired, blue eyed, and classically handsome, Sir Zedekiah thought for just a moment that his old Squire, his murdered pupil was back from the dead.

It wasn’t.  It couldn’t be.  Zedekiah kept the surge of grief from his face with the ease of long habit and forced himself to listen to the An Dinan’s words.  He focused on the differences.  North Back’s hair was true blond, not a very light brown.  He was a year or two younger than Alex.  He held himself balanced, not forward as an aggressive fighter would.

Sir Kenneth’s voice was level and even.  “You sound like the last bandit, the one on guard.”

Squire Brian’s voice seemed too deep for the rest of him, hot with frustration.  “We had them.  We tracked them.  The guard couldn’t even see me.  You could have killed them all.  But you poisoned them instead.  It’s not right it’s…”

“Cowardly?” Sir Kenneth offered without heat.  “Squire, I have found in life that that it is much harder to heal than it is to kill.  We could have charged in with our swords out, and a single missed stroke or broken bone could have woken them all.  They were sleeping and we are trained, but even Knights of An Dinas are not immortal.”

Kenneth pointed to the back.  “We took them with medicine and knowledge, instead of swords and muscles.  Were they less taken?  Do you think the young people they kidnapped were better or worse when they had the chance to confront their attackers in court, tell what happened, and see those wrongs punished?  Do you think the town would have been better off if we told them that the bandits had died, or if the people who held them powerless came under their power?

“Knights of An Dinas do not exist to kill, though we do.  We do not serve ourselves, though we gain honor and glory.  We serve the Kingdom, the Pilgrims, and the Saints.  So it is good to stop bandits.  It is better to show justice, to uphold the law, and to empower the people.”  Sir Kenneth nodded towards Sir Zedekiah.  “Here is duty to call us away.  If the people see justice, see the Saints obeyed, then they are stronger instead of weaker when we go.”

Sir Zedekiah nodded in return.  The older Knight’s belly may have gone soft, but there was nothing wrong with his mind.  He was a fool, but he was good at his foolishness.

Sir Zedekiah put all of his admiration on his face, and swallowed his contempt.  Sir Kenneth was not the only one who was subtle.  “Saints preserve you, Sir Kenneth, Squire…”

Zedekiah’s ruse gave Squire Brian the moment that he needed to catch on.  The less Sir Kenneth knew about the other members of Sir Zedekiah’s little band, the harder it would be for them to catch their target.  Sir Kenneth knew their prey better than almost any man alive, but even the most dedicated Knight might balk when sent to hunt down their own apprentice.  Zedekiah, Thomas, and Brian knew the situation, and the plan, but an ideologue like Sir Kenneth could never be persuaded to see reality, so he must be given the reality he could handle.

That most especially did not include the fact that all of his companions had an entirely different set of orders than he was about to receive.

Squire Brian, the undisciplined young idiot, actually winked behind Sir Kenneth’s back.  Why did the insecure constantly feel the need to give away the fact that they truly belonged?  “It’s Squire Brian Templeton of North Back, Sir Kenneth.  We haven’t met, but I’m honored to meet the most famous swordsman of An Dinas.”

Sir Kenneth smiled and promised himself not to give Squire Brian’s pretty head anything too valuable to retain.  He would be useful to distract young ladies, or get information from the fairer gender, and he would keep Sir Kenneth full.  The boy might be one with the cause, but his idea of subtlety was deplorable, and he tried far too hard.  Still, perhaps Brian’s phasing seemed too obvious because he already knew his role in the upcoming drama.

“The Saints preserve you, Squire Brian.  This is Squire Thomas Roy of Clearbrook.”

With the formalities out of the way, Sir Zedekiah reached into his pouch and produced a roll of parchment with the Knight Marshall’s seal in the unbroken wax.  The gold and black fabric attached marked the order as a direct message from the head of their order.

“You are not wrong, Sir Kenneth.  An Dinas heliographed ahead to expect us.  We need your assistance with an urgent matter of state.”

Kenneth looked puzzled, but he kept his polite smile in place.  “I received the message.  I’ll certainly help however I can.  However I try, though, I cannot imagine how I can be of service to such a capable Knight.”

“On the contrary,” Sir Zedekiah said with his first fully genuine smile of the morning.  “You’re our best chance to help us escort an important witness to An Dinas.  We have four weeks before the Knight Marshal’s son returns from his Pilgrimage, and I am charged to find Robert Cooper and return before then.”

And, Sir Zedekiah thought to himself, if your precious morals get in my way, we’ll put you in a wood casket just like his.

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