Penelope came out of her dorm building and turned toward the park. As she passed the ranger sitting on his favorite bench, she said, "If youíre gonna follow me, we might as well walk together."
Gryffon shoved the last bite of hot dog into his mouth and hurried to catch up to her. "No run today?" he asked, his long legs matching her stride.
"I thought Iíd give you a break", she answered without looking at him. "Yesterday you looked like you would pass out."
"What? No, it was just that I had a big breakfast. And I had a pebbler, rock in my boot."
Penelope gave him a funny look. "Anyway, I thought we would just talk today. About the book. Not that I believe your mumbo-jumbo. But I figured Iíd humor you for a while."
Gryffon gave silent thanks. He hated her endless jogs. He had to eat six meals a day just to keep up his energy. Not that he minded the six meals. Just working so hard to justify them. "Humor away", he said.
"The prophecy you mentioned. Whatís that all about?"
"I know as much as Iíve told you", he said. "The rest you must decipher from the book."
"Okay. What about the training you mentioned?"
They turned off the main path onto a dirt trail barely wide enough for them to walk next to each other. Gryffon enjoyed this part of the park. It was almost deep enough into the trees to shut out all the disturbing smells and noises of what amounted to cities in this age. As they walked, he stroked the leaves and plants alongside the trail.
"A Knight must be strong in both virtue and arms", he explained. "The book will show you the way of virtue. My purpose is to teach you the other."
She laughed at that. "You mean that sword you got under your coat?
Maybe that was the thing in your day but now they have stuff thatís a little more long-range."
"Those coming after you wonít-"
"Help me please."
Gryffon turned to find a squirrel staring at him from a branch just above his head.
"Please, can you help?" begged the squirrel.
Penelope tapped him on the shoulder. "Wonít what?"
"What?" said Gryffon, turning to the girl. "Oh, right. The assassins wonít be coming after you with modern weapons. Itís not their way."
He turned back to the squirrel. "What can I do for you?"
"A friend needs help real bad", answered the squirrel.
"Assassins?" said Penelope. "What kind of... Who are you talking to?"
Gryffon motioned for her to be quiet. "Where?" he asked the squirrel.
"This way." It bounded away into the bushes.
"Youíre talking to a squirrel?" Penelope said. "I canít believe Iím talking to someone talking to a squirrel."
Gryffon grabbed her arm and pulled her along after the squirrel. They ran through the woods, Gryffon using his body to force a trail in the brush for Penelope. The sound of moaning came through the trees, growing louder as they ran towards it. Finally, they broke through a wall of overgrown vines and stopped at the base of a small hill.
A large dog lay on top of the hill. That was the source of the moaning. When the dog saw them, it raised its head and let out a deep growl that Gryffon felt in the hairs on the back of his neck.
"Cut it out, Koko", said the squirrel, bouncing up the hill. "Theyíre here to help."
Gryffon walked up towards the dog, pulling the girl behind him. "Whatís wrong, friend Koko?" asked the ranger. "Where are you hurt?"
"Not him", said the squirrel. "Her." The squirrel pointed into a hole that Gryffon had not noticed until he reached the top of the hill.
Gryffon knelt by the edge and peered into the hole. It was deep, at least his height. When his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw a young girl lying at the bottom. She wasnít moving.
Penelope had followed him and looked over his shoulder. "Oh my god", she cried.
Gryffon pulled his sword out and jammed it beneath the jutting root of a nearby tree. He knotted one end of his coat belt around the hilt and tossed the other end into the hole. Gryffon tugged on the belt to make sure it would bear his weight. Satisfied, he lowered himself into the hole. At the end of the belt, his toes touched bottom.
He knelt by the girl. Her breaths were coming in short jagged gasps. Lightly he ran his hands over her head. Near her temple he felt a lump, sticky moist with her blood.
Penelope came down beside him. She took the childís wrist and felt for a pulse. "Itís hardly there", she whispered. She turned to the ranger. "We got to get help."
"It seems we are her help", replied Gryffon. He pulled a dagger from his belt and cut a thin line along the palm of his hand. Blood began to seep through the open slice. "Any other Knight and this child would be up and dancing with her next breath. But I am not so strong as my brethren so I will need your aid. Give me your hand."
Penelope edged away from him. "Hold on, I donít know what youíre doing but-" She stood and reached for the belt to climb out. "-Iím going for help."
Gryffon grabbed her hand and pulled her back to him. "Iíll not suffer your distrust at the expense of the child." He turned her hand palm up, the dagger poised above it. "Give your aid or I will take it."
She nodded, her eyes wide with fear.
Gryffon made the same cut along her palm. "We must be her strength. If we falter, she dies." He pressed her hand into his. "At the worst, remember you carry the blood of a Knight."
Gryffon laid his free hand onto the girlís wound and began to chant the healing spell. A soft blue glow surrounded the three, faint at first but growing brighter with each moment. He heard Penelope gasp when she felt the magic course into her. He knew she would be feeling the soothing, intoxicating power for the first time. He hoped she could survive what came next.
The pain hit.
As his body absorbed the malice of the girlís injury, his sight went dark. Pressure pounded at the back of his head. Hurt squeezed his chest until his lungs felt like exploding. Somewhere off in the distance of his mind, he heard Penelope cry out in anguish. Then it was over. The pain washed from his body like a wave off the shore. He opened his eyes and found himself crumpled against the side of the hole. Beside him, Penelope fought to get to her knees.
Gryffon crawled to the child. Her breathing was normal, the sweet song of a child asleep. He felt along her head for the lump but it was gone, her drying blood the only reminder of its existence.
The ranger helped Penelope to her feet. She looked at him, her mouth moving but no words coming out. He smiled at her and nodded over at the child. Penelope went to the girl and leaned over her, using the wall as support.
When she turned back to him, tears ran down her cheeks. "How?" was all she said.
Gryffon laughed, all the tension leaving him. "Are you trying to humor me again?" he joked.
He took Penelope and lifted her onto the belt, helping her climb out of the hole. Together they gently raised the sleeping child to the soft grass of the hill.
Gryffon carried the girl in his arms as they walked back towards the trail, Koko and the squirrel leading the way. When they heard shouts calling for the child, Gryffon laid her down next to a tree. He put his coat under her head for a pillow.
"Call them to her, Koko", he told the dog. As the dog barked,
Gryffon led Penelope and the squirrel into the trees. They stopped a distance away where they could keep an eye on the girl until help arrived.
The squirrel started chirping at the ranger.
"Whatís he saying?" asked Penelope.
"That you will be known as a friend of the forest from this day forth. Whatever aid you need will be given."
As the childís mother and the police found the girl, Gryffon and Penelope turned and headed out of the park.
"We need to talk", said Penelope. "I mean, really talk. No more kidding around."
"Wonderful", said Gryffon. "How about over lunch. Iím starving."
Later, in her room, Penelope pulled out the book. She had spent hours talking to the strange Gryffon. Every time she found it hard to believe what he was saying, she thought of the magic that healed a dying child. After that, nothing seemed impossible. She opened the book and began to read.
The silence was making her crazy.
For the thousandth time, Samantha paced the length of her cell. The Knights will find an answer, she told herself over and over. They will.
She pressed her face against the bars, her only link to the outside world except for the small window high in the back wall. Stone surrounded the rest of the cell. Cold gray stone. A guard stood near the end of her sight. She could barely make him out in the torchlight but it was a comfort just to know another living thing was nearby.
She almost called out a greeting to the guard, catching herself at the last instant. The guard would not respond to her, not even look in her direction. It had taken the better part of a dayís shouting to teach her that lesson.
Perhaps if I threw something at him. Then he would-
She pushed herself away from the bars. What am I doing? Only three days and already Iím losing my mind.
Samantha sat on the straw pile that served as her bed. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her head. But all she could hear was the sound of the cell door as it had slammed shut behind her.
"Might we sing for you, Lady?"
Samantha jumped to her feet and spun around. There on the edge of the window sat a magpie.
"Sing for me?" said the Lady.
"To raise your cheer", said the bird.
Samantha put on the best smile she could manage. "What is your name?"
The magpie chirped. "Robin. Get it? Robin the magpie. It really drives those stuck-up robins nuts."
Samanthaís smile became a little easier to manage. "Well, Robin the magpie, I doubt even your beautiful song could raise my spirits. But my thanks anyway."
"Would you allow us to try", asked the magpie.
"Us? Who is there with you?"
The magpie hopped to the side of the window. "Many of your friends. Come see."
Samantha grabbed the lip of the window and pulled herself up. She had gotten sick of looking out the window since it faced nothing but a few dead trees and the outside wall of the prisonís west wing. But what she saw now almost made her fall from her perch. At first she thought the dead trees had somehow returned to life and sprouted leaves. Leaves of every color, like an explosion of a rainbow. Then she realized the leaves were really birds. Hundreds of birds.
Samantha looked down. The she-wolf, Shalia, sat at the base of the wall.
"Shalia! It is wonderful to see you."
The wolf started scratching her ear with a hind paw. "Iím here only to remind them to stay in tune."
The magpie leaned out the window. "You donít fool anyone, wolf. You were as anxious as the rest to come."
Shalia bared her teeth and growled. "How do you feel about lunch?" she asked, her pink tongue licking her chops.
"Lunch? Thank you but Iím not hung... Hey, wait a minute." Robin hopped over to Samantha. "You wonít let her eat me, will you?"
Samantha shook her head. "Let me hear your song, my friend."
The magpie hopped to the outer edge of the window. He cocked his head back and sang out a long high-pitched note that echoed off the prison walls. First one by one then by the dozens, the other birds joined the song until they all melted into one clear pure voice. Samantha slid back onto the straw pile. She closed her eyes and tried to soak in the song. But she could hear nothing but the cell door slamming shut.
Over and over again, nothing but the cell door.
She pulled her knees to her chest, hugging them tight.
Nothing but the cell door.
She bit her lip until she tasted blood.
Nothing but the cell door.
She sucked in a breath to scream of her pain and madness.
And she heard the song.
It started small at first, somewhere in the corner of her mind. The cell door fought back, trying to push the song from her head. But the song came forward like the rush of a mountain river, bursting past the dam of the cell door until her mind was washed clean of anything but the voices of her friends.
With tears flowing down her cheeks, Lady Samantha listened for a time. Then she lay down and fell asleep for the first time in three days.
The man slammed the iron stump he had in place of his left hand down on the table. "Murderers and thieves, thatís what they are." The man looked around to make sure he had the attention of the tavernís other patrons. For the most part he did. Iron Stump turned his glare straight at the Knights seated across the tavern. "British should order every one of them Sunset Knights dead."
More than a few of the others nodded in agreement.
Gryffon looked over at Wildboy. His brotherís face was growing redder at every word. ĎIfí he exploded was not the issue. ĎWhení was more the question.
Gryffon was about to suggest they wait outside when a shout came from the back of the room. "You know what I hear? I hear they like little boys."
That was it.
Wildboy roared as he leapt to his feet, throwing the table over on its side. He stalked forward, his sword waving back and forth as if debating on the best candidate for its point.
Iron Stump rose to his feet, his hairy chest bursting the buttons of his shirt. The man was large, not as tall as Wildboy but thicker around the shoulders and legs. Two others came to stand beside him.
"Whatís a matter, knight", said Iron Stump. "Donít be liking the truth?"
Gryffon grabbed Wildboy from behind. "Knight, calm yourself", he whispered into the manís ear.
Wildboy shrugged free of the rangerís grasp and turned to face him. "You would let them live with what they say?"
Gryffon put his hand on the blade of his brotherís sword. "We must. Theyíve committed no crime. Would you rather we join the Lady in jail instead of freeing her?"
For a moment, Gryffon thought Wildboy would answer yes. But then, the knight sheathed his sword. "Letís wait for your mystery guest outside", he said.
The two Knights left the tavern to laughter aimed at their backs. At least it was cooler outside with the breeze coming off the water and carrying a hint of ocean spray. Gryffon took a deep breath, trying to wash away the moldy taste the tavern left in his mouth.
"Of all the taverns in Trinsic", said Wildboy, leading Gryffon over to the shade of a nearby palm tree, "why did your friend have to pick that dump?"
Gryffon shrugged. "When I find out who my friend is, Iíll ask."
Wildboy looked out over the ocean. "Gry, itís been three days and we have nothing. No witnesses, no clues, nothing." Wildboy stepped close so that their faces were only inches apart. "You know sheís innocent. I know sheís innocent. We all know sheís innocent. Then why does she look so damn guilty? Whoís behind this?"
Before Gryffon could answer, a woman walked by wearing the flowing desert robes fashionable in Trinsic. Without looking at either Knight, the woman whispered though the veil covering most of her face, "Follow me." She moved off down the street and turned into an alley edging the tavern.
Wildboy shrugged as if to say Ďthings couldnít get worseí and headed for the alley. Gryffon looked around. People on the street were going about their normal business. No one seemed to pay any particular attention to the alley or him. The ranger walked into the alley. The Knights followed the woman towards the back of the alley, behind a pile of large crates that hid them from the street. The woman turned to face the two Knights.
"Sorry for the trouble inside the Goat", she said. "Hope it didnít hurt your pride too much."
Her voice sounded familiar to Gryffon though the veil muffled it. Her accent was definitely not from Trinsic.
"You were responsible for that?" he asked.
"No, but I knew Craganís ship was in and heís always there. And I knew what his reaction to you would be, especially since news of the murder has reached the city. Seems Cragan had a bit of a run-in some months ago with your guild over a bit of piracy. I hear he thanks one of your Knights for the loss of his hand."
Wildboy snorted. "Wasnít me or heíd have much more to be thankful for." He pushed back the flap of his cloak to reveal the hilt of his sword. His eyes narrowed as he stared at the woman. "Which is something you might want to consider right about now."
"Wild", said Gryffon, grabbing his brotherís arm, "thatís enough."
"No, Gry, itís not." The two Knights stood toe to toe. "Whatever game sheís playing, Iím changing the rules. Iíll not be her dupe. And you wonít either."
"The test was necessary", said the woman. Both Knights looked at her. "I had to see if your friend could control himself", she said to Gryffon. "He has a problem with subtlety."
Gryffon smiled at Wildboy. He clapped the Knight on the arm. "She makes a good point."
"Yea, well, how does she know? Who are you anyway?"
"More importantly", added Gryffon, "why are we here."
"I have information on your Ladyís predicament. And before you question how can you trust me..." The woman pulled the veil down from her face.
"Captain?" whispered Gryffon. The captain of the Yew guard responsible for the Ladyís arrest.
"Selma", she said. "Today, itís just Selma."
"Why are-" started Gryffon but she cut him off.
"You refused my help once. I offer it again. I can tell you where Samanthaís accuser lays waiting for the trial."
"How do you know?" asked Wildboy. "Weíve searched for him for three days. Itís like he disappeared."
Selma nodded. "A lot of people have taken notice of your efforts to find the man. More than a few have questioned your intent."
Gryffon touched his hand to Wildboyís arm to remind him to keep his calm. "We only want to talk to him", he said. "To hear what he saw so we can prove the falsity of it."
The womanís face remained expressionless. She looked directly at Wildboy. "Iíve heard of your way in questioning witnesses. I want your word that youíll cause no harm to the man."
Wildboy did not hesitate. He bowed deeply. "Youíve my word as a Sunset Knight."
Selma lifted her eyes to the ranger. "It pains me to ask this of you but will you swear the same?"
Gryffon copied Wildboyís bow. "As a Sunset Knight."
The captain nodded. "You will find him in Nujelím at the Restful Slumber. Agents of Lord British keep a close watch on him until the trial. No one can get near him, least of all one of you." The captain smoothed some wrinkles out of her fine robes. Finished, she looked from one Knight to the other. "But I hear from a reliable source outside the Guard that the man enjoys the company of a certain type of woman most every night."
Gryffon was confused. "A certain type of woman?"
Wildboy put his arm around the rangerís shoulders. "Please forgive him", said the Knight, patting Gryffon on the chest. "He spends too much time in the forest. She means a whore, Gry."
"Fine", said Gryffon, "but we canít just send a whore to question him. We need someone who understands the danger in this."
Wildboy agreed. "One of the Knights then. Undo? Naomm?"
Gryffon shook his head. "You want to ask one of them to be a whore?
I think youíd look good as a frog. Without legs, knowing Undo. Besides, I couldnít ask a woman to lower herself to that despicable man."
Selma laughed. "So what you need is a woman that is not a woman." The Knights looked at each other, broad smiles forming on their faces.
"What?" said Selma. "What did I say?"
"No. No way." The mage stalked around the circular room that served as his study in the castleís tower. "No sirs. Not in a thousand years. Never. Uh uh."
"Ar-Kane", said Gryffon, "this is for the Lady. Believe me brother, we would not ask but we are at a loss for any other answer. The situation could not be more grave."
The mage pointed an accusing finger at Wildboy. "Then why is he laughing?"
Wildboy sat at the table next to the ranger. His face was a bright red and contorting in spasms as he fought to keep his lips clenched shut. "Me?" he rasped. "Iím not..." He covered his mouth with his hand. His eyes bulged like they would explode. "Excuse me", he said as he ran from the room.
As laughter burst from the hallway beyond the room, Gryffon said, "Never mind him. He thinks everything is funny. Remember when Sargon tried his first recall spell and ended up in that harpiesí nest. Wild laughed at that."
A smile escaped Ar-Kane before he could pull it back. "We all thought that was funny."
"But who else peed themselves?" asked Gryffon. He stood and walked around the table to Ar-Kane. He held out his hand. "If there were any other way, brother. But we need you."
Ar-Kane grimaced then took the rangerís hand in a firm clasp. "When?"
"Now. Night falls in a few hours in Nujelím. And the trial starts tomorrow."
"Give me a few minutes", said the mage. He walked into a side room, mumbling curses.
The study door opened and Sargon walked into the room. Gryffon started to rise from his chair but the guildmaster waved him to remain where he was.
"Whatís wrong with Wildboy", said Sargon. "I passed him on the stairs and he was barely able to talk."
"Woman troubles, I think", said Gryffon, hiding his grin behind a goblet of wine.
Sargon raised an eyebrow at the ranger but then let it pass. "Iím glad I found you", he said. "Azreal finally received permission to examine the body. He and Xeep are headed to Britain now. If you want, I could gate-"
Ar-Kane walked into the room. He was dressed in a radiant gold dress that matched the new silken tresses falling down around his shoulders. The fabric of the dress hugged his womanly hips and breasts so tight, Gryffon wondered how he could breathe. The dress stopped far short of the mageís knees, revealing long, shapely legs.
When he saw Sargon, Ar-Kane stopped short, his mouth hanging open in distress.
For his part, the guildmaster did not miss a beat. Sargon sauntered over to the mage. "Ranger, why not tell me you had such lovely company", he said in a husky voice.
Ar-Kane stood stone still, his eyes squeezed shut, as Sargon took his hand and lightly kissed the back of it. "Gryffon, mind your manners and introduce me to this wondrous vision."
"I... I..." Gryffon could not control himself. "Excuse me", he blurted out, running from the room. He stumbled down the stairs, laughing so hard he could barely see through the tears. Ar-Kaneís shout followed him out of the tower. "Gryffon!"
A wild cheer filled the innís main room. Wildboy jumped to his feet and thrust his arms into the air. Five matches, five wins. He looked around but no one seemed too eager to become victim number six. Not after the last was having so much trouble getting back to his feet.
"Maybe after youíve had some more to drink then, eh?" he shouted to the crowd. "Innkeep, everyone in the house to have an ale on me."
As another cheer rose around him, Wildboy collected his winnings and headed back to the table. He slid into the chair opposite Gryffon.
"Gry", he said, leaning forward, "you should try it." He jingled his now considerably heavier gold pouch. "Good coin and a lot of fun."
Gryffon put down the same mug he had pretended to drink from since they arrived. "One of us has to keep an eye on the stairs. Besides I thought the idea was not to be noticed."
"Nobody knows us here, especially not like this", answered Wildboy.
"And we both canít sit around like dung on a cowís arse. That would be noticed."
Wildboy was probably right. About the disguises anyway. Both of them had dyed their hair and traded their knight garb for clothes more commonly seen on sailors. Still, Selma had said that Britishís agents watched the inn. How could he be sure they would not recognize a Sunset Knight?
Wildboy slouched back in his chair and put his feet up on the table. "How long has he been up there?"
Gryffon glanced at the stairs leading up to the innís second floor. "Nearly half the hour." It had taken some time for Ar-kane to spark the accuserís interest. At one point it had looked like the man would pass the mage over for a short, brown-haired whore. But Ar-kane had whispered something in the manís ear and minutes later was following him up the stairs.
Wildboy laughed and began choking on his ale, a spray of it coming from his nose. "I just hope he doesnít lose himself in the moment", he said between coughs, "and forget why heís up there."
"You just better hope he never figures out how to cast that spell on someone other than himself", said the ranger, handing the Knight a rag to wipe his chin. "Or you and I could be-"
An explosion from somewhere upstairs rocked the inn.
Closest to the stairs, the two Knights were the first to reach the second floor. Two of the three doors along the hallway were open, the half-dressed occupants leaning from the rooms, looking down the hall at the last door.
Gryffon shouldered open the flimsy door. A cloud of smoke and ash swept over him as it billowed from the room. Covering his mouth, he slid into the room, Wildboy right behind him.
A jagged hole of blackened timbers replaced what was once a window in the far wall. Flames dancing along the edges of the hole provided the only light in the room.
They found Ar-kane in a corner, lying half-upright against the wall.
"Ar-kane", cried Gryffon, kneeling next to the Knight.
The mage turned his eyes to meet his brother. The rest of his body was as rigid as a board. The skin on his face was pulled taut over his skull like a death mask. A long, thin slash opened the side of his dress. Blood seeped through the fabric.
"Assassin." Ar-kane forced the word through clenched teeth. "Got one... spell off."
Wildboy sniffed the dress near the cut. He looked up at Gryffon and shook his head ever so slightly. There were tears forming in his eyes. Ar-kane saw the exchange. He coughed a laugh. "Youíre... not that... lucky. Immune... to the... poison." He lifted a hand that was contorted into a clawed fist and lightly patted Wildboyís cheek with his knuckles. "You... still... owe me."
Three men entered the room. Gryffon spared them a glance. All three carried swords. All three looked well-versed in their use. These were not ordinary patrons.
They went first to the body in the center of the room. The Ladyís accuser. Cursing that the man was dead, the three started towards the Knights. Just then the innkeeper burst into the room followed by a group of his patrons. He screeched when he saw the flames and began screaming that his inn was burning down. The innkeeper corralled everyone he could grab to help with the water buckets. The three swordsmen got swept along in the crowd.
"Weíve not much time", said Wildboy. "Can you walk?" he asked Ar-kane. The mage managed a nod and they lifted him to his feet.
They were heading for the door, Wildboy almost carrying the mage, when Gryffon heard a whisper of a groan from the dead man. Quickly, the ranger knelt by the manís side. The man looked dead. Gryffon could not even see him breathing but he could feel the slightest rise and fall to the manís chest.
The manís lips were moving. He was trying to say something. Gryffon pressed his ear to the manís mouth.
"Black... uuuhh... Black."
Gryffon lifted the manís head into his lap. "What? Black?"
The manís eyelids fluttered. "Rose." He died.
The ranger got to his feet and helped Wildboy with Ar-kane.
People with buckets of sloshing water rushed past as the Knights made their way down the stairs.
"Did he say anything?" asked Wildboy.
"Something about ĎBlack Roseí", replied the ranger. "Mean anything to you?"
Ar-kane pinched Gryffonís ear. "Swordmen coming. Rather not... be caught like... this."
The three men were struggling through the crowd fighting the fire. They were heading straight for the three Knights. Gryffon and Wildboy lifted Ar-kane from his feet and carried him through the back door into the alley beyond. They did not stop until they reached Gryffonís boat on the west shore of the island.
The three Knights entered the Chamber of Virtue in East Britain. They headed straight to the laboratory in the bowels of the temple, ignoring the stares of the worshippers already gathering in the pre-dawn hour.
During the voyage from Nujelím to the moongate in Moonglow, Ar-kane, the spasms of the poison finally easing, told his two brothers what had happened upstairs in the inn.
It had not taken very long to get the accuser drunk enough to brag about how much gold he had stashed in the cityís bank. The man claimed the money was for the easiest job of his life, with twice that much owed to him when all was said and done. Before Ar-kane could tease him into telling what that job was and who hired him, an assassin stepped from the shadows and stabbed the man in the back. Obviously thinking Ar-kane was no more than a whore, the assassin left him with just a slash to the stomach, giving the rest over to the poison. Nor could he know that Ar-kane had developed a limited immunity to the normally fatal poison.
Not until he heard the words of Ar-kaneís spell did the assassin realize his mistake. Unfortunately, the poison slowed Ar-kane enough that the assassin escaped through the window.
None of the three Knights knew the meaning behind Ďblack roseí.
A temple guard led them to Azreal and Xeep.
"Anything?" Gryffon asked as he hugged Xeep in greeting.
The mage shook his head. Xeep looked more tired than Gryffon had ever seen him before. "Weíve spent the whole night going over the body. If there were any answers there, theyíve been burned clean." Xeep nodded at Azreal who was walking around the body, mumbling to himself. "He thinks we are missing something. He canít figure what it is but heís torturing himself over it just the same."
Off to the side of the room stood Britainís Minister of Justice.
Xeep leaned close to the Knights and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Please tell me youíve had more success."
The look on their faces was enough of an answer. Wildboy gave Xeep a short account of their failure. Xeep too was mystified by Ďblack roseí.
"With the man dead and nothing here, are we lost?" asked Ar-kane.
No one answered.
The minister cleared his throat with a cough. "Sir", he called to Azreal, "are you done. The trial is to start in the noon hour. That leaves me little time to sleep."
"Done?" Azreal looked down at the body and ran his fingers through his hair. His shoulders sagged as he gave up. "Yes, Iím done." He joined the four other Knights.
"Az, what are you looking for?" asked Gryffon.
"I donít know", said the scholar. "It... I just donít know."
The minister ordered a guard to replace the shroud over the body.
"Whoever he was", remarked Ar-kane, "he died in a lot of pain."
Azrealís head jerked up. "Thatís it. That is it. My brother, you are a genius." Before anyone could utter a word, Azreal half-ran towards the body. "Minister, another moment please."
Everyone gathered around the body. Azreal pulled the shroud from the dead manís face.
"Azreal", began the minister, "itís very late and I want-"
Azreal held up his hand, one finger pointed towards the ceiling. "Would you agree this man died in a great deal of pain?" the mage asked.
"Would you agree?"
The minister frowned a look of surrender. "Fine. Yes, I would agree."
"And could you think of any reason why a man in great pain and on the verge of death would not scream?"
"Scream? I would imagine he did, very loudly."
All eyes in the room followed Azrealís finger as it turned and pointed at the dead manís face.
"Then why", said the mage, "is his mouth clamped shut?"
No one so much as moved. They just stared at the manís mouth.
"Thatís what was bothering me", said Azreal. "Thatís what I couldnít see." He bent close to examine the burned flesh of the lips and exposed teeth. "Can you think of a reason why he didnít scream?" He looked sideways at the minister.
"Reason?" stammered the minister. "Well, only that..." He stopped himself short.
Azreal finished the thought. "Only that he was dead before he was burned."
"Now, hold on. Thatís not... What are you doing there?"
Azreal had pulled a dagger from his belt and had it wedged between the manís teeth. "Just a hunch", he grunted as he wrenched open the jaws with a crack that echoed off the chamberís marble walls.
He looked inside the mouth. Gryffon stood on his toes trying to see over the mageís shoulder.
"Now, thatís peculiar", said Azreal. Dipping two fingers into the mouth, he pulled something free and held it up to the light. A black rose.
The minister stumbled backwards a step at the sight of the rose. His face was as white as the death shroud.
"You know something of this rose?" asked Gryffon.
The minister looked like he would vomit whatever meal he had last. "I must speak with Lord British", he said, turning to leave.
Wildboy grabbed his arm. "Tell us what this means."
The minister spun to face the Knights. "This is a matter of the nationís security. I must speak to-"
The minister recoiled as if struck. Wildboy raised his hands and took a step away from the man.
"Minister, are you well?" asked Xeep.
The man pressed his hands to his temples. His eyes stared into nothing. "Someoneís killing guards", he mumbled.
"Killing guards? Where?"
The ministerís gaze snapped back into focus. "Yew", he answered. "The prison."
Samantha opened her eyes.
She lay perfectly still, waiting for the noise to repeat itself. Her heartbeat pounded in her head.
She held her breath, straining to hear.
Nothing. The jail was as silent as a tomb.
I must have been dreaming, she decided.
The Lady climbed to her feet and brushed the straw from her robes. From the grayish black night outside her window, she figured there was enough time for her exercises before they brought the morning meal.
Then, the trial.
Out of habit, she was at the bars for a glimpse of the guard.
I must have faith. The Knights will-
There was no guard.
Samantha pressed her face against the bars to see further down the hall.
The cell door clicked open.
She stood there, just staring at the crack of space between the door and the bars. Then she gave the door a shy push. The door swung open with a mournful creak.
She stepped into the hall. Torches spaced evenly along the walls allowed enough light to see the length of the hall. She was alone. Samantha turned and looked back in the cell. There was safety behind the bars. For a moment she thought of locking herself back in. It was a short moment.
She walked down the hall, her eyes scanning the shadows for danger. The hall intersected with another passage. Samantha wished she had paid more attention to the layout of the prison when they brought her in. She continued straight ahead.
The hallway turned left, entering another block of empty cells, then stopped in a dead end. Samantha turned about, thinking she would take the left passage at the intersection.
A figure blocked the hallway, half-hidden in the shadows. The figure stepped from the shadows, coming toward her slowly. It was a man, someone she did not know. He was dressed in the darkest black she had ever seen. His clothes seemed to suck the light from the torches, dimming the hallway around him.
"Well met, Lady." He made ĎLadyí sound like an insult. He pulled a curved dagger with a purple-black blade from his belt. Samantha caught the tangy odor of poison.
"My name is Carius", continued the man, "and on this day, I-"
Samantha kicked the man between the legs.
He crumpled. "Bitch", he squeaked. "Youíre supposed to let me finish." From his knees he swung the dagger at her legs.
Sidestepping the blow, she ran past him and down the hall. Behind her, the man laughed, the sound bouncing off the walls.
At the intersection, she took the left passage. She passed a guard station, a small alcove set back in the wall. Two guards lay sprawled on the stationís floor, their throats slashed. She ran on.
The hallway turned left again. She stopped. Two women, dressed exactly like the first man, stood in her path. Both held daggers with a purple-black blade. They came for her.
She could hear the first assassin close behind her. "Who are you?" she asked, trying to buy time to think.
One woman looked at the other and smiled. "I told you she wouldnít know", said one. "These knights are so predictable."
The other shrugged. "You just cost me heavy coin, fool", she said to Samantha. She put the stained dagger away, replacing it with a stiletto gleaming silver in the torchlight. "For that, youíll die slow."
Samantha glanced behind her. The man leaned against the wall, grinning.
"Why?" she asked the women.
"If your friends had asked these questions before", said one, "perhaps you wouldnít be here."
"Just tell her", said the man. "Itís more fun when they know." The first woman nodded. "Why? Because we desire this land. And for some reason our master sees your knights as a threat."
"Who is your master?"
"Thatís enough", said the woman with the stiletto. She advanced forward. "I claim you as my kill."
Samantha had no escape. She had no weapons or magic. Perhaps she could finish one but never three. She was going to die.
A streak of gold flashed past her ear and flew right into the womanís face.
"For the Lady", shouted the bird, clawing into the assassinís nose and pecking at her eye.
The woman howled in pain. Blood dripped from tiny holes in her eyelid. She grabbed the bird and flung it at the wall. The bird hit the stone with a crunch and bounced onto the floor dead. The woman stood glaring at the bird, her hand covering the injured eye.
The other womanís shoulders were shaking with laughter. "The ladyís allies strike bac-"
A bird flew into the womanís face, landing on her head and pecking at her scalp. "For the Lady", it cried. Then another bird joined the melee. And another. In seconds, a dozen birds swirled around the two women.
Behind her, the man was flailing away at birds diving at his face. Something tugged at Samanthaís robes. It was Robin the magpie. "Lady, flee. You must flee."
Samantha started toward the fight against the two women. Robin flew into her path. "No, Lady. There are more than these three. You must flee while the way is clear."
Samantha hesitated for a moment. Already, the women had killed most of the birds. Now that the surprise had been spent, the birds had no chance.
The Lady turned and followed Robin back up the hallway. As she ran, a flood of birds, squirrels, rabbits flowed past her towards the fight, all shouting her name. Their death screams pounded at the back of her head.
At the intersection, she almost collided with the wolf Shalia. To her right, down another passage, shouts of anger mixed with the screams of animals.
Samantha felt dizzy from the noise.
"This way", shouted the wolf over the din.
"Iíll be back", said Robin, flying off into the shadows.
"Robin, no", Samantha yelled. "Come back."
"Lady, we must go", said the wolf.
Samantha felt her heart breaking. Cries of the animals being slaughtered filled her ears. "Shalia, I canít leave them", she said.
"Would you give your life for them?" asked the wolf.
Samantha nodded, unable to get words past her trembling lips.
The wolf nudged her forward. "Then allow them the same honor."
Together the wolf and Lady ran along the passageways of the prison. Several times they almost ran into a battle, forcing them to double back and find a new way. Finally they made their way to the inner gate of the prison. Samantha recognized the place. Just past the gate would be the courtyard and outer gate. Beyond that, the Yew forest.
Two assassins guarded the gate. Both pulled the purplish blades from their belts and grinned.
Shalia did not hesitate. She launched herself at the assassins. "For the Lady!"
The wolf caught one assassin at the throat, her weight knocking the man onto his back. With two shakes of the wolfís powerful head, the manís throat came apart in a spray of blood.
But Shalia could not move fast enough to escape the second assassin. Once, then again, the woman plunged her blade into the wolfís back. Shalia raised her head and let out a vengeful howl. Then the poison attacked her heart. She fell dead.
Samantha could not move, so furious was her rage.
The assassin turned to Samantha. "Never to worry, dear lady. Thereís enough left for you."
Samantha knew that if the poison touched her, she was dead. Still, she would not turn and run. Whatever her fate, she would face it here. The woman advanced, smiling. "I, for one, appreciate your standing, lady. Iíll make it quick."
Movement caught Samanthaís eye. Robin flew in from behind the assassin.
Samantha shouted for the bird to stay clear but the magpie had already swept past the womanís head and aimed straight for her. In its claws, the bird held a small pouch. As it passed Samantha, Robin dropped the pouch.
Samantha caught the pouch in the palm of her hand. The drawstring came undone and the pouch opened. A familiar smell wafted from the pouch.
The assassin was a step away when she met the Ladyís eyes and saw her death. The lightning bolt struck the woman, driving her into the far wall. The woman crumpled to the ground, a seared hole in her chest.
Samantha heard running from the gatehouse. She turned, ready to lash out with fire.
Sunset Knights poured into the prison with Yew militia right behind.
"I want one alive", she yelled as she waved for them to follow. "Just one."
No assassin was taken alive. Any that didnít escape died by a Knightís hand or their own. Where the forest animals had made their stand, the scene was of indescribable horror. Samantha made herself stand for a long time at each place, ignoring pleas to move on. She wanted to remember every detail. The hardest task still waited for her.
She found him back at the gatehouse. Shalia was in his lap.
"Gry", she said, "Iím so sorry."
He was stroking the wolfís head. He did not look up. "She was the finest lady Iíve ever known." The ranger raised his eyes to meet hers. There were tracks of dried tears down his cheeks. "Beside yourself, of course", he said with a weak smile.
Samantha laid a hand on Gryffonís shoulder. "You were right the first time."
He stood, cradling Shalia in his arms. "With your leave Lady, I would bury them now. To send their spirits on their way."
"Gry, I could not fault you if you blame me in this. If I had taken the captainís offer, none of this would have happened."
The ranger stared at her for a long time, his jaws grinding as if words he did not want uttered fought to escape. Fresh tears welled up in his eyes.
Finally he spoke. "Lady, would you help me lay my friends to rest?"
Samantha touched her forehead to his. "Yes, my brother. It would be my honor."
"Youíve had enough, old man", said the innkeeper. "Get a move on."
"Enough?" the old man slapped a hand on the bar. "Enough?" He grabbed at the man standing next to him. "Did he say enough?"
"You smell, old drunk", cursed the man, pushing the old man away.
The old man staggered backwards, knocking some glasses from a nearby table before he fell to the ground. He got to his feet, swaying as he leaned on the bar for support.
He pulled a coin purse from his trousers. He jingled it a few times. "Does this say IĎve had enough? Not to me."
The old man took a few unbalanced steps towards the door and fell.
The crowd laughed and hooted as he tried to get to his feet then fell again. Finally the innkeeper grabbed him by the back of his raggedy coat and threw him through the open front door into the street. The old man stumbled to his feet, patches of sand from the street clinging to the rags he wore. He staggered forward then turned down the alley beside the inn.
No one paid attention to the three men that followed the old man from the tavern and into the alley. Halfway down the alley, they caught him. Cragan pushed the old man against the wall with his iron stump. With his good hand, the brute grabbed the old manís coin purse. "Youíll not be needing this", he said as he tore the purse from the manís belt.
The old manís hand shot out from under his coat and latched onto the big manís wrist. Cragan tried to pull his hand away but the old manís grip held like iron.
The old man straightened up until he was taller than Cragan. "You forgot to say please."
A short punch to the face sent Cragan windmilling backwards against the other wall
The old man threw off his coat to reveal a golden cloak underneath. The air about his face shimmered. When it cleared, the pallor and wrinkles of the old man were replaced by the square jaw of Wildboy of the Sunset Knights.
"Didnít your mothers ever teach you manners?"
He leapt onto the other two men.
Penelope closed the book. Her hands were shaking. After all Gryffon had told her, after all she read in the book, her head was on fire.
A bird landed on the windowsill. "May I sing for you, Lady?" said the bird.
Penelope stared at the bird. "Did you just say something?"
"Yes", the bird answered. "I asked if I could sing for you."
"But I can understand you."
"Of course you can. Are you not a friend of the forest?"
Penelope thought of the little girl and the magic that coursed through her body. I helped save a life today. Now, I can talk to birds.
"Yea, I guess I am."
The little bird began to sing.