Alastar had just finished wiping a smudge of dirt from his gold-rimmed, pure white armor when his sister, Rhona, entered. She gave him that look he always hated—a raised eyebrow, a gaze that dared him to look away from her green eyes, and a hint of a smile at her lips. It was the look she gave him whenever she was about to knock him back down to size and remind him of their humble beginnings.
“Let me stop you right there,” he said, fastening his gold cloak over his shoulders and turning to the mirror. Damn, he looked good. Not in a conceited, sexy sort of way, but as a strong paladin who deserved every bit of honor the High Paladin, Sir Gildon, was about to bestow on him.
Making eye contact with Rhona, he attempted to match her confidence as he said, “I earned this.”
“Oh, and I had nothing to do with it?”
“You were there when I needed you, aye. But I was the one who caught the warlock. I am the paladin here, don’t forget.”
“How could I ever?” Her brow furrowed into a glare that lasted only a moment. “I’m simply looking out for you.” She stepped up beside him and reached a hand over to smooth out his cloak. “It’s just… there’ve been too many times we thought he was preparing to send you on the holy quest.”
“I have proven myself.” Alastar turned, voice rising in his excitement. “Why shouldn’t Sir Gildon send me on the next expedition?”
She shrugged. “He should, there’s no doubt. But that doesn’t mean he will. You don’t notice the way he eyes me.”
“The High Paladin? His holiness?” He waved her off, then approached the table at his bedside, where he had his sword and sheath laid out. “I won’t hear it again.” He strapped on the sheath, then hefted the sword and felt its balance. The jewels in its hilt made it seem gaudy to some, but the Order of Saint Rodrick believed swords above all else held a spiritual connection. They should be adorned, but it was more than that. When the Saint blessed their prayers in times of combat, these precious stones would glow as if they had a light of their own. Proof of the Saint’s miracles.
“He is the head of this order, the senior paladin in all of Roneland,” Alastar said, sheathing his sword. “He does not covet my sister.”
She nervously glanced around, as if the walls had ears, then wrapped an arm around herself as her free hand fidgeted with the blue cloth of her dress. It complimented her strawberry hair nicely, giving her a playful look that most paladins might not agree with, but simply reminded Alastar the joys of their youth.
“Well, let’s not keep them waiting then,” Rhona said, heading for the door.
With a brush of his hair, he turned to follow her. They would be toasting to him this evening, and he certainly couldn’t be late in such a situation. It ate at him that the High Paladin hadn’t seen fit to send him on the holy quests, but he would get his chance, he was certain of it.
Finding the Holy Sword of Saint Rodrick would give the paladins the power to fight off the invaders from the sea to the north, thereby earning their place at the King’s right hand.
And if Alastar was the one to find it for his lord, he would be second to none in the Order of Saint Rodrick, except Sir Gildon, naturally.
He passed halls lined with armor and images of the Sword of Light. Its likeness was in these paintings and embroideries and elsewhere throughout the castle on shields and more. Its hilt was encrusted with the mystical green rock known as jade, giving its blade a distinctively green glow when blessed, a rarity, as other blades would always simply glow a whitish-gold, regardless of the stones they were adorned with.
This was all speculation, however, as the real one had gone missing over one-hundred years before, when Saint Rodrick led the attack on the creatures of Madness who populated Sair Talem, the large island to the west.
A pleasant aroma came from the main hall—the scent of roast pheasant cooked with thyme, apricots, and in white wine, if he had to guess. It made his mouth water. He could tell his sister must have noticed the scent as well, because she had stopped, one hand on the wall.
But as he approached, he realized that something must be wrong. His armor clanked as he darted to her side and reached up to touch her face.
“It’s…” She looked up at him with dark gray in her normally green irises, shadows under her eyes over pale skin. “I’m fine.” The prayer was already on his lips as he reached for her, but she pulled back. “No, keep your energy.” She smiled, and already the darkness seemed unnoticeable, the color returning to her cheeks.
“Your health means more than anything to me. Are you getting enough sleep?”
She nodded, but a distant look in her eyes made him wonder if she was holding something back.
They had never kept secrets from each other, at least, not that he knew of. Ever since their parents were killed in the magic wars and the Paladin order had agreed to take the two of them in, it had been so. He had promised to take care of her and to always be everything she needed in an older brother.
So now, too, he looked into her eyes and said, “If you need me to take you to your bed, all of this can wait.”
“No, I’m feeling much better now.” She put on her best smile and added, “Honestly.”
A gnawing feeling in his gut told him to refuse to believe that. But she was his sister. If she said it was so, she was old enough to know the difference. She had reached her nineteenth birthday just two weeks prior, after all.
“Let’s get in there and overindulge, shall we?” She took his arm and smiled up at him, waiting.
“I’m famished,” he replied, and led the way, wondering the whole time if she was using him for support because she was still feeling weak.
The large, oak doors were wide open, so that the flickering torchlight cast a warm glow on the stone walkway as they approached. Inside, Alastar noted his brothers in arms at the head table, their ladies in waiting, men at arms, and servants occupying the rest of the room. It wasn’t arranged like the King’s great hall down south in Gulanri, but more like a church with a large tapestry at the front of the room that had on it the image of the glowing sword of Saint Rodrick. It framed Sir Gildon’s seat nicely, situated at the top of the stairs, alone, with his own personal table for meals.
An approving glance found its way to Alastar as he entered, but just as quick, the High Paladin had returned to his meal, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
“Come, I’ll escort you to your table,” Alastar said to his sister.
She pulled her arm free and shook her head. “That would make me appear weak. We can’t have that.”
He frowned, but nodded. “If you have any troubles…”
“You’re half-way across the room, not off in the highlands or something. I’ll be fine.”
She patted his arm and walked off, leaving him to watch her go. He knew no other love like this. His last living relative, sharing the blood of the mother and father the two would never know.
He had his paladin brethren, but would otherwise feel lost without her.
But as she had said, this was his night. His opportunity to finally shine like so many had before him and, he hoped, have a chance to fulfill his holy duty. He wanted nothing more than to go on the quest, recover the Sword of Light, and earn the respect of Sir Gildon.
“There he is, the warlock hunter of the hour!” Sir Taland stood, the tallest of the paladins, with flowing blond hair. He motioned Alastar over to a seat on the bench at his side. Others nodded their respect as he sat, many of them having been in his spot before, but not all.
“Do tell—” the dark-skinned, gaunt paladin sitting across the table, Sir Bale, leaned forward, eyes glimmering in the torchlight “—what form of the dark arts did he manifest against you?”
Alastar relished the moment. He leaned back, letting the anticipation build as the others waited for his answer.
“Fire,” he finally said, and motioned with his hand as if creating fire himself. “The barn was already aflame when we arrived, and when I stepped in to defend the lady Sera, he threw a wall of flame first, followed by an actual ball of fire.”
“Odd how he hasn’t used a lick of magic down there in the dungeons,” Taland said. “The minute we capture them, nothing. Which makes me wonder…”
“He’s one of them,” Alastar said, affronted at the implied accusation, “you can see the singe marks on my other cloak, if you’d like.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust your word, brother,” Taland said. “It’s that these bastards are all the same. They use magic against us and our countrymen when out there, but once they’re surrounded by a bunch of paladins? Nothing.”
“They know magic, sure enough,” a rough voice said from behind, and Alastar twisted to see that Sir Gildon had been listening and actually joined in the conversation. “But they are evil, as all magic users are. Evil is like the darkness. How can it continue to exist when surrounded by such light as ourselves?”
The others nodded and murmured their agreement. It was known that magic users were evil. If they were wrong, why would the Saint give them blessings so? It was certainly a holy sign of their true beliefs.
Alastar couldn’t help but notice a darkness cross his sister’s expression as she turned back to look at the High Paladin. Was she offended at something he had done? While the High Paladin was pure and a true knight to look up to, Rhona often heard tales of him mistreating servants, and let them get to her.
Alastar brushed it off as not important for now, but made a mental note to ask about it later.
Sir Gildon’s eyes turned to the nearest torch, where he lost himself in thought for a moment. For Alastar, this man was everything he wanted to be. Honor, devotion, and a direct line of power to their saint. All the man had to do was pray over water to make it holy, and run his hand over gem stones in their armor or weapons to bless it with the Saint’s powers. There was none more deserving of the paladins’ devotion in all the land, and none better suited to lead this war against the evils of magic.
As the flames flickered in his eyes, the High Paladin blinked, then rose to stand. The hall fell silent.
“My warriors of the Saint, my paladins, and our followers, today another blow has been dealt in the war against evil. A user of magic, a warlock, was reported to be within our territory, and justice was dealt swiftly. He sits in our dungeons as we speak, awaiting punishment. Who do we owe this to?”
The room turned their gaze to him intently, Alastar straightening up with anticipation.
“First and foremost,” the high paladin continued, “the almighty Saint Rodrick. For all deeds are done through his favor. But we must not forget our own, our servants of the light, and today that honor goes to Sir Alastar Blackthorne!”
Cheers erupted from the paladin table, mugs clanking against wood and feet stomping.
The high paladin smiled down at him, the tapestry with its shining sword standing out strong in an almost halo effect. “Tomorrow, he joins the next group in the holy quest. Let it not be said that I forget those loyal to the cause. Let it not be said that practitioners of magic are allowed to roam freely. They will all be punished!”
More cheering rose throughout the great hall.
“But tonight, we celebrate!”
With that he lowered his head and said a prayer under his breath. He opened his eyes, still glimmering gold from the prayer, and then motioned to the great hall where, at once the torches went out, but a brilliant, gleaming light spread across the stone ceiling.
No matter how many times the men at arms and servants saw this small miracle, it awed them. Hell, Alastar’s prayers were often answered, and yet, he still found these miracles inspiring.
Servants began to pour out of the side-doors with the platters of food Alastar had smelled on his way in. Everything from the roast pheasant to mounds of potatoes, fruits, alternate main dishes of blood pudding and sausages.
The men at arms were given jugs of ale and other spirits, though the paladins abstained, as was their holy duty. Men regaled each other with war stories, such as the time Sir Taland had stood up to a dozen clansmen by himself and bested their witch, a woman who had conjured a water spirit and attempted to drown him with her evil magic.
Alastar wasn’t sure he believed such stories, but he went along with the laughter just like the men to his right. More than once, however, he found himself glancing over to his sister to make sure she wasn’t feeling ill again. So far, no negative signs aside from the annoyed look she gave him the fourth time she caught him.
As they ate their dinner and laughter surrounded them, Alastar’s friend, Stone, leaned over and held his knife like a sword. The man was built like a pile of stones, but that’s not the only reason he got the name—one day they’d come across a wind mage who had attacked them without warning and, while the rest were clinging to the nearest tree for their lives, Stone had charged the man. He was lifted into the air by the winds, but not before managing to cleave the mage’s head from his shoulders. That, they all had figured, proved the man had some massive stones between his legs. So it had stuck. Some of the ladies of the castle had tried to find out if the legend was true, but he stuck to his oaths, far as Alastar could tell anyway.
“You been training, Al?” Stone said. “You go out there on the holy quest at my side and don’t know how to swing your blade, me and you got a problem.”
“Last time we were on the sparring field, what happened?”
Stone grunted and jabbed his knife into the chicken breast before him, but grinned. “Luck’s what happened, and we both know it.”
“Let me say this, Stone. The two of us go into battle, I’m not leaving your side for a minute. I promise I won’t let the big bad remnant hurt you.”
The others nearby laughed at that and Stone grinned. Alastar, for his part, didn’t find the idea of remnant humorous at all. They were like men, but wild, crazed, and as far as the stories went, focused entirely on violence. They could not be reasoned with. They only wanted to wreak havoc.
But he grinned at Stone, and nodded. The two had become friends in the training yard, as Alastar and Taland were the only ones able to truly take him down, and Alastar had only done so twice. Anyone that could take down Stone soon became his friend, which meant he only had the two friends. Everyone else still had to earn their place with him.
“You really think the boy’ll be going?” Taland said, lowering his voice with a sideways glance up to the High Paladin. “Come on, Alastar. So you took down one fire mage. You didn’t kill him.”
“Lady Death has her hands full after all the gifts you’ve given her,” Alastar said, jokingly. But then he added, “And the mothers and widows left behind have enough names to curse without adding mine to the mix.”
Taland sneered. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were on their side.”
“Because I don’t want to see lives taken needlessly?”
“They are the enemy. Their lives don’t matter.”
The others had grown silent now, but Stone tore off a chunk of bread with his teeth and, with a full mouth, said, “All lives matter.”
Soon the talk had returned to laughter, ignoring the little confrontation. It wasn’t until the meal had been cleaned away and dessert was before them that the first shouting came from outside.
“The hell?” Taland was the first to stand, reaching for his sword. “Men, to arms!”
FROM JUSTIN >>> This is a bit of a long snippet, but I wanted to really get you into it. Why hold back, right? Guess what? I’ve been reading the Brandon Barr and PT Hylton books that fall under the Age of Magic (like this book does – and they’ll all intersect in cool ways), and guess what? They are AMAZING. I love those writers. Fun characters you care about, good humor, and great times all around.
Stay tuned for more snippets from me, and soon some from them!
Also, check out their other books: