He swiped her blade aside easily and gave her a hard thump on the head for her trouble.
"Again," he said as she climbed to her feet.
"Dammit, Gry," said Penelope, fingering the growing welt on her forehead, "this is stupid. That move can't work. You're too fast."
"You'll not always be fighting me," answered the ranger. "Again."
For the hundredth time, she thrust forward, aiming a strike at his right shoulder. When his wooden sparring blade met hers with a loud clack, she dropped down to one knee, spun about and swept her blade at his left leg.
The original attack was a feint, designed to put her opponent off-balance. The real attack came off the spin. If it worked, the attacker would have the leg cut out from beneath him. Problem was, if it was defended, she was left in so bad a position, the fight was over. It was a suicide move, to be used only as the last resort. And yet Gryffon insisted on practicing the move over and over.
WHACK! He brushed aside her swing and thumped her on the head.
"Jesus Christ, I'm sick of this," said Penelope. She climbed to her feet facing him. "Why don't you find another-"
She leapt into the feint. Her ploy had caught him off guard; he was slow in blocking. In a blur she was down and spinning, her blade whistling toward his knee. She had him this time.
Penelope got into a sitting position. She needed a minute for the spots to clear from her eyes. "Can't we work on something else?"
Gryffon sat next to her, his fake sword lying across his legs. "Do you think you stand a better chance with another attack?" he asked.
"Against you? Not really." That was true. Even though he said he was not the best of the Knights, he was still a better swordsman than she could hope to be. At least, not without years of training. Nothing she tried against him worked, no matter how well she mastered the move. Once, he even spent one session with an arm tied behind his back. He would never let her forget that one.
Now he wanted to end every workout with the suicide move. "Building character" he called it.
More like building a bump on her head.
"Why never to the left?" she asked. She just realized that he never asked her to flip the move and practice the attack in the opposite direction.
Gryffon worked at his sword, plying a splinter out of the hilt. He gave no sign he heard her.
He looked up.
"Why never to the left?"
He met her eyes. There was that look again. Total calm, as if nothing in the world could possibly be wrong. He even added a thin smile that reflected the same tranquility. Penelope knew that what he said next would be a lie.
"Because most of your opponents will be right-handed," he said, "and immune to the opposite attack. We don't have time to waste on training that serves no purpose."
"That doesn't make sense'" said Penelope. She was not letting him off that easy. Not this time. "Are you saying-"
He laughed and hopped to his feet. "The unbeliever worrying about making sense. I thought you still considered all of this a bad dream."
He flowed into an attack stance. "Are you yielding-," he taunted her with the end of his sword, "-little girl?"
That did it. She leapt at him, flashing through every attack she knew. The clack of their blades echoed like gunfire off the walls of the empty basement.
She woke up with a start.
In Gryffon's bed.
Penelope jumped off the mattress. She let out a loud sigh of relief when she realized she was wearing clothes.
The last thing she remembered was finishing their workout and wanting to rest a minute before walking back to the dorm. She had no idea how she ended up in the bed.
She followed the smell of pancakes and coffee into the kitchen.
Gryffon was seated at the small table, devouring a mound of pancakes. He waved good morning, his cheeks bulging.
"Save any for me?" she asked.
They both looked over at the platter on the stove, empty except for one last pancake; a tiny, misshapen creature obviously made with the final scrapings of the bowl.
The ranger swallowed. "Um, I could make some more," he said.
"No, I don't have your metabolism. I could go for some eggs though. Without the yolk." She headed towards the bathroom for a much-needed shower. "And no sausage this time. For you either."
Before stepping into the shower, she stuck her head out of the bathroom. "Gryffon," she called out over the rush of the water, "I said no sausage."
She smiled at the litany of curses coming from the kitchen followed by the slam of the freezer door.
"Little girl, my ass," she said.
They sat at the table, just enjoying the morning sunshine streaming in through the high kitchen window.
"Gryffon," said Penelope, "can I ask you a personal question?"
He leaned back in his chair. "The one truth in life is that no force, magical or otherwise, can stop a woman from asking a personal question."
"No, this is serious. If you don't want to answer, then I'll forget it."
The ranger raised an eyebrow. He crossed his arms over his chest. "All right then. No, I do not want to answer."
Together they both said, "But why?"
Gryffon roared with laughter.
"Stop that," Penelope said. "I just wanted to know if you ever found your son again?"
In an instant, the ranger's body went stiff. His eyes turned to twin swordpoints.
"You are mistaken," he said through clenched teeth. "I have no son."
"I'm sorry, Gry. I didn't mean...It's just the book-"
"The book?" He jumped out of his chair so quickly Penelope almost fell off hers. "What does the book have to do with such nonsense?"
"I read the story 'Justice'. About you and your son."
"That story is about the attack on the city of Vesper."
He was so upset, Penelope wanted to agree with him, to forget the whole thing. But somehow she knew the story was important to their relationship and her part in the whole mess. So she said, "But Gry, I read the story yesterday. I'm sorry but it was about you."
After what seemed like an eternity, he nodded. "I hear you. It seems the book has decided it knows best how the tale must unfold. I should have expected as much. I never did trust magic."
He poured them more coffee and sat back in his chair.
"Tell me the story," he said.
Penelope took a sip of the coffee to steady her voice. "It begins before you're a Knight. You're not even in Britannia. You belong to some church, like its champion or something. You're returning to a city I never heard of in any of the other stories and..."
What would he say to the boy?
Gryffon Kinethson stood deep within the blacksmith's alley, far enough into the shadows to be safe from the light of the half-moon overhead. In his sister's house across the cobble-stoned street slept the son he had not seen for seven years. Despite the chill in the night air, sweat moistened the shirt Gryffon wore under his chainmail tunic.
Seven years is a lifetime to a boy at that age. He might not even remember he had a father.
The first hint of dawn appeared in the eastern sky. The guards had recognized him when he entered the city's north gates. In the morning, word of his return would spread like wildfire through the streets. The spires of Adan's temple caught his eye. From atop her hill in the center of the city, the temple of his goddess reached into the heavens, the white stone of her walls gleaming in the last of the moonlight. Surely a messenger already waited outside the temple for the bishop to wake.
Gryffon was sworn as Adan's champion. As was his father and the fathers before him. As would be the son after him. Service continued in blood and name across the centuries. One man, one Oath. There could be no greater honor.
Of course, a price must be paid. The goddess had many enemies and it fell to her champion to stand for her cause. No matter where the fight would take him. No matter how long he would be away from home.
Would the boy even remember he had a father?
"Damn this," Gryffon said, "I remembered." He strode out into the street, one hand clenched around the hilt of the sword at his waist. Long legs brought him boldly to his sister's door. He raised a fist to knock and announce his return. There he froze, the awful silence of the street daring him to make any sound to disturb it. He imagined eyes watching him from behind every shuttered window, every closed door. Laughing eyes. Accusing eyes. You've been gone too long, they cried. Far too long.
His hand drifted back down to his side. Imagined or not, the voices were right. He had been gone far too long. He started back across the street. Perhaps after he had finished with the bishop, he could-
A voice rang out, a real voice. "Why do you wait?"
Gryffon whirled in its direction, half pulling his sword free.
A woman appeared from the shadows, walking towards him. Her boots made no sound against the hard stone. Tall enough for a man, she moved with the confidence of someone dangerous with the daggers strapped to each thigh. A hood hid her face but Gryffon knew her right off. Only one woman could make the bad night worse.
"Welcome home, Kinethson," said Joslyn Pollice, flipping back her hood to reveal a slight smile. Her obsidian eyes swallowed the moonlight. She gave him an exaggerated curtsey.
"Milady, what are you doing here?" he asked, tugging her by the arm away from the house.
Joslyn looked him over head to foot. "I might ask the same of you, sneaking about like a thief." He started to object but she cut him off. "I've been waiting here for you."
"Seven years is a long time to stand watch," he replied.
"You flatter yourself, Kinethson," said Joslyn. "When the guards came into my tavern looking too excited for such a boring night, I guessed they whispered about you. I stopped first at the temple then I came here." She shook his hand free from her arm. "Though it looks like my first guess wasn't too far off."
Her words cut him deep. From the time they were children together, she always knew what was in his mind, almost before he did. No matter what he said or did, she had an answer for it. And she would stand there, like she was doing just then, and wait for him to deny that she was right.
He wasn't ready for this. Not for her. Not for the boy. He backed away a step. "The bishop waits for me," he said.
She regarded him a moment, her arms crossed over her chest. "Same old Gryffon," she said, shaking her head. "The Oath above all else. What of the boy?"
Gryffon studied the ground. "I will return."
"After the bishop. You know my duties."
"Better than you it seems," she answered. "At least let me tell you that the boy's doing well. And tall like his father." Her voice had lost its edge. "He'll make a fine champion."
She gave a startled squeak when Gryffon grabbed her by the shoulders. He growled into her face, "You promised he would not know you."
A dagger appeared at his throat, the tip pressing hard against his stubbly flesh. "I agreed, milord," Joslyn answered, "that he would not know his mother and he does not. He believes me some friend of your sister."
Fire raged in her eyes. A fire he once thought he could never live without. He caught the scent of her hair then, as fresh and clean as a deep forest breeze. Despite the blade at his throat, a lost but not forgotten ache stirred within him.
A droplet of blood trickled down his neck.
"Do you mean to kill me then?" he asked.
"If it would save him, perhaps." The dagger disappeared and she pushed him away. "But already he talks of nothing but the Oath. He's lost to the Oath like you were as the child he is."
"From the first you knew his blood was sworn to the church," he argued. "It was you that turned from us." He wanted to take back the words even as he spoke them.
"Or what?" she asked. "Spend my years waiting for you to return from some church errand? Watch my son grow to the same fate? Was that my choice?"
"The Oath requires sacrifice," was all he could say.
"So you've said many times." She pulled her cloak tight against the chill. "After your duties, remember your son." She walked into the shadows and disappeared.
He watched her go, then started towards the temple. He wanted very much to believe his promise to return.
Laying his sword at the foot of the altar, Gryffon bent his lips to the cool flagstone. "Your holiness," he said, "I deliver my Oath duly served."
"Let me hear your news, champion," answered the bishop from the dais. "That will tell if your Oath is satisfied."
Gryffon pushed himself from the floor to his full height. Head and shoulders above most men, he towered over the seated bishop. "The heretic Shadowheart is dead."
Jessop brought his hands together in a loud clap. "Bravely said, dearest knight. Come, we must have a toast." The elderly bishop stepped gingerly from the dais, measuring every step. He moved to a small table and poured two goblets full of wine. Giving one to Gryffon, he raised the other in praise. "You are your father's son."
Out of respect, Gryffon sipped a bit of wine before setting the goblet down. "That's more honor than I deserve, your holiness," he replied. His father Kineth had been Adan's greatest champion. He could no sooner equal the man than fly.
"Nonsense," said the bishop. "As word of your deed spreads, people will see that we are strong again. A first step to regaining the power we lost with your father's death."
Trying to climb back onto the dais proved too much for Jessop. He would have fallen had Gryffon not grabbed him. Gryffon half carried the bishop back to his seat. Despite the scents and oils rubbed into his skin, the musty smell of old age clung to the bishop.
"People need to see a strong champion, my son," the bishop continued. "They need the belief that we will withstand any hardship. How else can we ask them to put their eternal souls in our hands?"
He picked a large scroll from the stack of papers beside his chair and handed it to Gryffon. "That is a map of the lands bordering the Waste. Do you see the village circled there?"
Gryffon held the map open before him. The village sat nestled within the foothills of a narrow mountain range at the very lip of the desert. "Aye, Bellmound," he said.
Jessop nodded. "Why some would live in so desolate a place is beyond me. Even the king has forgotten them. But not the church, champion, not us. Nothing but a small village at the edge of nowhere and still we reached out to bring them Adan's Word."
Jessop took several sips of wine, the pointy apple in his throat bouncing with every swallow.
"The council knew that Adan's message of sacrifice and discipline would not engender zealousness among those so hard-pressed just to survive. But we decided it was our duty to make the attempt."
The bishop sat back in his chair, shadows hiding his face. "Do you remember Father Geoffrey? The task fell to him to carry our teachings to Bellmound. By the courage of his faith, he spent these last years among the villagers, enduring their hardships, proving that Adan had a place among their lives.
"A merchant caravan just brought news that Father Geoffrey was murdered nearly four months ago in the wilds outside the village. All accounts have a mountain troll guilty of the foul deed."
Standing, Jessop leaned on Gryffon to steady himself. "All the time and effort by Geoffrey stands at risk if the villagers believe we are too weak to protect our own. I will not lose these people, champion. We will show them strength worthy of their faith. I want the head of the beast responsible."
Gryffon would have laughed had the bishop not remained so serious. Jessop actually expected him to track a troll in its native mountains, after the trail was four months cold. No, more like five months. Bellmound was more than a hundred leagues south. It would take at least three weeks to reach the village, even if his luck held good.
Still, what choice did he have? The Oath was the Oath. Service continued in blood and name. "Abandon the Oath," his father had told him long ago, "and those before you were for nothing. Do not forsake us."
"Of course, holiness," he said. "On your leave, I'll pick ten of the Guard's best. We'll head south within the month."
"The men are already chosen," said the bishop. "When I heard of your arrival, I sent word immediately to the king of my request. Your command will be ready to travel after morning prayers."
After morning prayers? The bishop knew he had just returned. And there was no telling how long he would be away this time. "Your holiness, I-" Seven Years. Would the boy even remember he had a father?
"Time is precious here, my champion. But I can see you long to see your family again." The bishop waved a hand at a dark alcove and an acolyte stepped from the shadows. "Perhaps I can allow a small delay."
Jessop scribbled a short message on the back of a scroll and handed it to the waiting acolyte.
"I will have your men stand ready for one day," said the bishop. "That will give you time to see that wonderful boy of yours."
One day. Gryffon felt his lungs empty in a slow leak. One day and the boy would be fatherless again. What purpose would that serve except to make his absence that much harder to swallow.
Gryffon dropped to one knee. "No, holiness," he said, "there is no need for delay. We will leave after morning prayers." He hoped a son could one day understand a father's sacrifice.
Someone entered the church from the doors behind him. Gryffon did not turn until the familiar voice welcomed him home.
"Arick!" Gryffon grabbed his brother's extended hand and held tight. "By Adan, you look...older." He ruffled the smaller man's hair like he did when they were younger. "When did you start growing whiskers? Or is that a mummer's prop."
"Oh, it's real enough," Arick replied. "Though if I knew how much the ladies would like the feel, I'd have faked it a lot earlier."
"Watch that talk, you two," said the bishop laughing, "or you'll be spending the morning in the confessional." He motioned both men to sit. "Gryffon, the king has released Arick at my request to act as your second in command. Arick himself picked the men for your party."
"My second?" Gryffon noticed the gold badge on Arick's tunic. "A Lord of the Guard. I have been away a long time."
"Surprised, brother? There is some compensation for being a son of Kineth, if only the second born. Of course, I like to imagine my appointment owed more my skill as a soldier than being your brother."
Gryffon looked at his brother. Arick avoided his eyes, his lips clenched in a tight smirk. "I meant nothing by it," said Gryffon. "I just remember you as a goggly-eyed boy and not the man of arms before me. My apology."
Arick waved away his brother's concern. "No need for that, Gry," he answered. "There's no offense in what you said." But Arick still would not look at him.
"Come," said Jessop, "I've a treat for both of you." He took Gryffon's arm and led the brothers past the altar into the private chambers beyond. There, covering one entire wall, hung a huge tapestry. At the center, the bishop Bashin, Jessop's predecessor, stood amidst the clouds and overlooking all the lands touched by Adan's Word. Dozens of images swirled about the dead bishop, all intricately woven but none so brilliant at Bashin himself. Save one.
A warrior stood alone on a hilltop off Bashin's right hand, surrounded by a ring of enemies so thick as would swallow other men whole. Yet this man, his eyes burning green fire, towered over his foes as if they were babes. His sword, as long and wide as another man's leg, cut wide swaths through the enemy's ranks. The violence of the blade was so vibrant, blood seemed to drip from the fabric itself. The artisan had left no doubt to the contest's victor.
"Your father. At the Battle of Falstarr"
Jessop stood between Gryffon and Arick. "A beautiful work, is it not? Bashin had it commissioned just after your father's death. It has taken this long to complete.
"The church owes much to the strength of your father's Oath that day."
Gryffon said nothing. At Falstarr, Kineth crushed a revolt against the church's power north of the White River. That battle transformed the man that was his father into a legend. Kineth's greatest victory. And his last. Kineth succumbed to his battle wounds only days later. He died on the field, refusing to leave his victory under anything but his own power.
Kineth's death left Gryffon, only ten summers old and barely able to swing a sword, as Adan's champion.
Without another glance at the tapestry, Gryffon asked Arick for introduction to the men of his command. The brothers begged their farewell of the bishop and strode out of the church into the bright morning sun beyond.
The soldier pointed to the body in the casket. "This is he, milord."
Gryffon sat atop his horse in the middle of the dusty field, the sun beating down on the back of his neck. Behind him, mountains rose up through the humid haze like rotten teeth. He took a sip from his waterskin, swirling the piss-warm water around in his mouth to loosen the dust caked inside. He turned in the saddle and looked east to the farmhouse in the distance. Just under half a league away was his guess, nothing but scrub grass between. He spit out the water.
Handing his reins to the soldier, Gryffon swung down from the saddle. He signaled the captain to release the men so they could at least try to find some relief from the heat.
Gryffon bent over the casket. The sweet sour smell of decay threatened his stomach. Between the heat and the worms, nothing much remained of the priest Geoffrey. Still, Gryffon could see where long strips of flesh had been torn clean from the bone. In places, the bone itself had been splintered from the force of a blow.
The wounds certainly looked to be the work of a troll, a smallish one by the size of its cut. And yet something was not right. Gryffon circled the casket, nudging the corpse with the end of his sword to get a better look.
"What do you see, brother?"
The question broke his train of thought. Gryffon looked up to see that Arick had joined him.
"I'm not sure," replied Gryffon. "Anything seem strange to you?"
Arick peered down at the priest's body. He started to say something then just shook his head. Finally, he stepped back from the casket and shrugged.
Gryffon was sure the body was trying to tell him something. Something he could not put a name to. But standing around in the sun and the stench was not making the matter easier. He and Arick lifted the lid back onto the casket.
"Have some men fill in the grave and take the body to the village undertaker," said Gryffon. "I want it prepared to travel back north with us."
Arick nodded and called for the captain.
"And I want an answer," added Gryffon, "why the priest was not buried at the village's church."
As the wagon bearing Geoffrey's body made its way across the field in a cloud of dust, Gryffon went in search of the man that owned the land.
He found the old man nearby, squatting beneath the only tree standing in the baked field. Arick had told him the man's name was Lyon. He lived out here alone with his young daughter, having lost a wife and then a son to the mountain trolls years ago. Together, father and daughter raised goats in the surrounding hills and harvested what few crops would grow on the arid land.
The old man did not look up as Gryffon approached. Instead he scratched little circles in the loose dirt with his staff.
"They tell me you found the body here," Gryffon began.
The old man nodded. "That night, the church man came to me house, offering the salvation of his god as he be naming it. 'Well', I told him, 'I need less saving and more rain but ye be welcome to sup with me daughter and me if you like.' So I offered him what I had and he did the same, though I'd wager mine filled his stomach a bit more in the bargain. When he had his say, he left.
"The screams came soon after. I found the tracks just into the field, troll and man. Beast chased him for a time. Caught him here."
Gryffon surveyed the area, trying to picture the attack. Open terrain. Flat. Every advantage to the troll. He looked over the field separating him from the farmhouse, estimating how fast a troll chasing an old fat priest on foot could reach this spot.
Another piece of the puzzle that escaped him.
After a few more questions to which he received little more than nods and grunts, Gryffon tired of the old man and let him return back to his labors.
Gryffon called the men back to their horses. He wanted to be after the troll. Perhaps there he would find his answers. Without waiting for the company, he galloped off towards the mountains.
The troop camped in the foothills at the mountains' edge. As the soldiers set about raising the camp, Gryffon sat with Arick and the captain, discussing the strategy for the next day's hunt.
"I'll be the first to ask it," said Arick. "There must be a score of trolls in these mountains. How do we find the one that killed the priest?"
The captain poked at the fire with a thick branch. "We look for a rogue male."
"How are you so sure the killer is a rogue?" asked Arick.
"A tribe male wouldn't leave his mates alone for so long," said the captain. "Not for so small a meal."
Gryffon looked up from the map his scouts had provided. "What did you say?"
"About the male? It wouldn't risk leaving his brood to venture that far out of the mountains."
Gryffon stood up and the others followed suit.
"At first light, each of you take a party to search the caves in the north ridge," Gryffon said. "If you find our rogue, keep it in sight but you're not to attack without me."
"And where will you be, Gry?" asked Arick.
"There's another matter I want to attend to," said Gryffon as he walked out of the firelight to his blanket.
Gryffon closed his eyes to the moonlight. He had his answer, the one plaguing him since he saw Geoffrey's body in the casket. It should have been clear from the beginning but he had not understood what his eyes were telling him until the captain's remark about the troll's appetite.
There were no bite marks.
As he slipped into sleep, the same question ran over and again in his head.
What troll kills but does not eat?
In the morning, he would have another talk with the goatherder.
Gryffon stood in the doorway to the farmhouse and called out the old man's name. When no answer came, he stepped across the threshold.
The house did not welcome him, meeting his intrusion with a silence that pressed down around him, trying to keep him out. His hard boots fell on the wooden floorboards like thunderclaps as he walked through the house. Even his breath was deafening in the quiet.
Gryffon was almost ready to search for the herder in the fields when he came to a closed door at the end of a hall. There he heard the only sound in the house that was not his own. From beyond the door came a slow, lonely creak. Then silence and then again the creak. As he listened, the rhythm played on without change.
Gryffon almost turned and left the house. Some fear he could not name warned him against opening the door.
For the same, simple reason that he was in Bellmound to begin with, Gryffon turned the knob and pushed the door open. The Oath left him no choice.
He was in a large sitting room. A stone fireplace dominated the far wall, its hearth cold and dark on the hot morning. Before the fireplace stood a chair, its back to him, rocking so slowly only the creak of wood spoke of its movement. Small feet dangled over the front, barely scraping the floor.
Gryffon walked to the front of the chair.
The child was young, just into her blossoming years. Her face and neck, hands and forearms, any skin not covered by the dull blue housedress she wore, burned pink as if scrubbed raw. She stared straight into the stone hearth, her eyes unblinking. Only her nostrils moved, flaring in and out with each ragged breath.
He knelt beside the chair. The child's eyes never moved. Afraid of his own voice in the quiet, he asked if she was well.
The rocking ceased with one last groan.
Gryffon touched her hand. Her skin was ice.
Her eyes turned to meet his.
They held only terror.
Her wail surprised him, knocking him off balance. When she clawed his face, her nails gouging the flesh of his cheeks, he fell flat on his back. Jumping from the chair, the girl crawled to the corner, huddling there against the wall.
He started after her, intending to give comfort, but a voice froze him. A voice taut as a bowstring.
"Leave her be, brother. She's beyond you."
Arick dragged Lyon behind him as he entered the room.
"What are you doing?" demanded Gryffon.
"My duty." Arick half-threw the old man to the floor. Lyon, bleeding from the head, struggled to his knees and crawled to his daughter.
"Your duty is hunting the troll in the mountains," said Gryffon.
"No," answered Arick, "that's your duty, not mine."
The two men stood face to face. Gryffon glared at his brother but the smaller man did not back away. Instead, Arick said, "Ask him what afflicts her skin."
Lyon held the girl in his arms, her whimpers muffled by his chest. To Gryffon's unspoken question, he said, "She believes herself unclean."
Gryffon mouthed the word, Unclean. For the first time he noticed the girl's belly was rounder than her lean body should carry.
"Who touched this child?" asked Gryffon.
Lyon did not answer. Gently he coaxed the girl back into her chair.
Gryffon looked to his brother. Arick watched the girl. The grief etched on his face answered Gryffon's question.
"The priest," whispered Gryffon.
"And I killed him for it," the old man said. "For retribution."
He brushed a lock of sweat-damp hair from his daughter's face. "But it was no fair exchange." His eyes met Gryffon's. "Your oath repays a ravager."
All the strength seemed to leak from Gryffon's limbs. When he finally realized that no troll had killed the priest, he returned with the intention of questioning Lyon further about the murder. He was even sure that the old man was somehow involved. Perhaps for money or to blame someone, anyone, for a lost crop or a hard life. Never did he imagine the real truth behind the murder.
And his Oath demanded the old man's head.
This is what all his sacrifice had led him to.
"Why not go to the bishop?" he asked when he found his breath. "He would have seen the priest punished."
"The bishop?" said the old man. "The bastard already knew."
"Liar." Gryffon backhanded the man across the face, knocking him to the ground. He raised his sword, angry enough to take the old fool's head right then.
"Gryffon, enough." Arick grabbed his brother's arm and held back the blow. "This isn't your place."
Gryffon stared at his brother in amazement. "Not my place. He has murdered a man of the church, no matter what the reason. He has blasphemed the bishop himself. This is exactly my place."
"Not blasphemy," croaked the old man. "I killed the priest but I speak the truth."
Gryffon shook free of his brother's hold. He lowered the sword to his side. "Speak your truth then, but know that your first lie means your head." He added for Arick's sake, "And no one will stop me."
Lyon crawled into a sitting position. "Five years past, the priest came. With papers so all knew him as the church's man. Claimed this be his land, his 'territory'.
"To begin, he took a bit of stock, some grain. Spread his hand among all folks. 'Tithe', he called it. Then the women, even those wed to others. Who could deny him? He be the church's man.
"Three years ago, someone went to the bishop, told him of the ill deeds. The man was called false, beaten for his lies and sent home. The priest met his return, killed him as warning to us all. Claimed the man's land as payment for the 'slander'. None dared speak against him then.
"Me wife died before his time. Grain and stock was all he took from me. Counted meself fortunate. Until that night when I heard her scream.
"Your bishop knew."
Gryffon could not deny the truth he heard in the old man's voice. But if the bishop knew about the priest then why didn't he stop the man. And why send him all this way after a troll if he suspected the truth behind the murder? Why not just-?
Gryffon turned to his brother. "You knew," he said. "You were sent to kill this man."
"I'm ordered to kill Geoffrey's murderer," replied Arick. "It just happened to be him. Don't look so shocked, brother. Do you really think the bishop would waste Adan's champion on a common citizen? Not when there's Kineth's second son to give the prize to."
"But why am I here?" Gryffon asked, although he already guessed at the answer.
Arick laughed. "Why? Too many people would wonder why a poor old man would risk damnation to murder a beloved priest of Adan. There were already too many rumors into Geoffrey's unsightly habits with women. You are here to be the hero, brother. Isn't that what champions do? You return with the troll's head, the bishop calls for a celebration and everyone sleeps better knowing the world is safe again."
"You mock me," said Gryffon.
"No brother, it's the Oath that mocks you. It's just easier to blame me. Now, go find your troll and leave me to my duty."
Arick pulled the old man to his feet. Lyon managed to kiss his daughter's hand before Arick dragged him away.
"What about the girl?" Gryffon asked as he followed behind his brother.
"She'll return with us and be left to the nunnery. I'll tell the men her father begged her passage as a boon from the church. To hide her indiscretions with one of the local boys."
"Your men know nothing of this?"
"By Adan, are you that big of an oaf?" said Arick. He turned in the doorway. "Did you expect me to share church secrets with common-?"
Gryffon's fist struck his brother in the forehead, snapping his head backward into the wall. Arick crumbled into a heap on the floor.
Gryffon pulled a pouch from his brother's belt and added the coins inside to his own purse. Handing the gold to Lyon, he said, "There's a merchant caravan on the west road. If you hurry, you can catch up to them in a day or two. The coin will be enough for your passage and a new start besides."
"But this is me home. What of me lands?"
Gryffon lifted Arick onto his shoulder. "If you stay here," he said, locking the old man with his stare, "I will return and complete my Oath." To add weight to the lie, Gryffon said, "And I'll not be as easy with your daughter as my brother promised."
The man's face paled and he nodded.
Gryffon handed the man his signet ring. "Give this to your mayor. When the soldiers come looking for us, he's to tell the captain that I received an urgent summons from the bishop. My brother and I have ridden ahead and they are to follow immediately. He will give them the ring as proof. Do you understand? Good, now go."
Gryffon headed to the door, his brother draped over his shoulder. He stopped and turned back. The old man was helping his daughter out of her chair, whispering comfort into her ear.
"Lyon of Bellmound," said Gryffon, "I no longer have the faith to offer you forgiveness or ask for yours. But know that in your place, I'd have done no different."
Gryffon did not expect any reply, for what could be said to give words to the torture the old man must feel. But to his surprise, the old man managed a sad smile.
"I hold no blame to you, sir," said Lyon. "In me place, I think you'd have done more. I've not your strength."
Gryffon mumbled a farewell and left the house. As he tied Arick to his saddle, Gryffon wondered just what the true measure of his strength was. He would need every bit and more to do what must be done.
Gryffon thought of Kineth. 'Do not forsake us,' his father had told him. Gryffon hoped a father could understand a son's need.
Gryffon climbed onto his horse. With Arick in tow, he began the long ride north.
With morning approaching, Joslyn Pollice threw the bolt locking the Poison Garter's back door. Lately, business at the tavern had been slow, probably because of the king's new taxes. Still, people being what they are, her customers would no doubt return. If only to drown their sorrows in a little spirits.
"Let it be soon," Joslyn said to an empty room. "I hate the quiet."
So when the door crashed open an instant later, the iron bolt flying uselessly through the air, she almost laughed. Sliding a dagger into her hand, she raised the oil lamp to get a better look at her unexpected guest.
"Gryffon! Have you...You're hurt!" He had cuts on his face and hands, the worst of which was a gash above his eye. Blood seeped through his chainmail from a wound somewhere on his left side. She pulled him over to the table. "Rest here. I've some bandages-"
He pushed her away. "There's no time. Is anyone here?"
"Anyone? No, I'm closed."
He looked to the doorway. "Come. It's safe."
From the shadows of the alleyway, a young boy stepped into the room. Quickly, the child moved to defend his father, struggling to hold a large sword steady before him.
"Jerek?" Joslyn brushed aside the blade and touched the boy's face to make sure he was real. "Gryffon, what's happened?"
Gryffon ignored her for a moment, instead turning to his son. "There's food in the other room," he said to the boy. "Take as much as you can carry."
When Jerek left the room, Joslyn repeated her question.
"I tripped and fell on my sword," Gryffon laughed, more phlegmy cough than humor. "Several times."
The attempt to amuse her failed miserably. She planted her fists on her hips and glared at him, waiting for an answer.
"There was a time when I could make you smile with no effort at all," he said.
"We were younger and more foolish then," she replied. "But I'm thinking one of us has not changed much."
"Oh, you are wrong in that, lady. The bishop's men hunt for me. When I'm found, they will kill me. Perhaps the boy too. At the least, they'll steal him away until he remembers only their version of the truth. You must take him first."
"I don't understand. Why would the bishop want you dead?"
"Jessop no longer wants for anything. Unfortunately, his minions have decided to hold the loss of his head as a grudge. You must take our son from here so he does not share the blame of my treachery. I'm sure you have ways out of the city not guarded by the Watch. And trust no one. Least of all my brother, should you see him."
Joslyn did not understand half of what Gryffon was saying. But she could see from the alarm in his eyes that it was not the time for questions. She agreed to do as he said.
Gryffon called his son to him. "Listen to me. This woman-", he smiled at Joslyn, "-this woman is a special friend. She must leave on a long journey. A dangerous journey. I need you to go with her, to protect her."
"But father, I would stay with you. What of my Oath?"
"Yes, the Oath. I almost forgot that." Gryffon took his son's hand and kissed it. "Jerek Gryffonson, swear now that no oath save this will ever bind you, that only your heart will decide the just path to follow. In blood and name, swear to that now."
"But father, that isn't-"
"It's a new oath. Our oath. Now swear it."
After his son repeated the words, Gryffon pulled the boy to his chest and wrapped him in a tight hug. He kissed his son's cheek. "Our blood is one. In you I am free." Gryffon looked up at Joslyn. "Leave now," was all he could say without his voice cracking.
Joslyn gently tugged the boy from his father's arms and sent him to the stables to gather fresh horses. She helped Gryffon to his feet. "Come with us," she said. "Three can flee as fast as two."
Gryffon shook his head. "I'll stay behind to ensure your escape. Perhaps someday we'll meet again but the boy is yours now. Raise him well." He traced his fingers along her hair and the curve of her neck. "He'll make a fine son."
She reached up to stroke his chin. "This you do not deserve, Kinethson."
He bent to kiss her. "Shed no tears, milady," he whispered. "The choice is mine. It is enough."
Penelope looked at Gryffon. He sat across from her, not moving, his eyes closed. Neither of them had said a word since she finished the story.
To keep from fidgeting, Penelope cleared the dishes from the table. As she worked at the sink, up to her elbows in soapy water, Gryffon finally spoke.
"No, I never saw my son again."
She did not turn around. "Do you know what happened to them?"
"Joslyn was a resourceful woman. She got our son safely out of the church's reach. That's all I know."
"What happened to you?"
"Once the Oath was broken, the goddess' strength began to leave me. I knew that in days I would be nothing more than a normal man. I held off the bishop's men as long as I could. Then I fled, forcing them to chase me. Months later I landed on Britannia's shores, lost and homeless until the Knights took me into their fold."
"Did you ever try to find your son again?"
His chair scraped on the floor as he stood. "No. I was a Knight and had other commitments."
Penelope watched his shadow on the wall as he left the kitchen. She followed behind him, drying her hands on a towel.
"You mean the guild wouldn't allow you to find your family?" she said, waving the towel with aggravation. "And these were your friends?"
Gryffon half-sat on a stool and gazed out the window at the brick wall of the next apartment building. "The Knights knew nothing of my past. Do you think they would have accepted my oath if they knew how badly I failed at another?"
"Oh, that's such a load of crap. Look, I'm tired of you acting sorry for yourself all the time. You're the most capable man I've ever met. Stop blaming everyone else for your problems."
"Child, you have no idea what I'm capable of."
"And that's another thing. I'm not a child or a little girl. I'm a woman and I know you should have gone to your son. You were afraid he would reject you, I can understand that. Maybe he would have. I don't know, except I think most kids just want their dads. They don't start worrying about the other crap until they become adults and lose all their freaking sense."
Gryffon jumped from the stool and faced her. "You have no idea about the world of my age. Don't judge me by the ridiculous way you live now."
She did not back away. "I know that you're human. Here's a clue, pal. We haven't changed that much since we started walking on two legs way back when. We just do things a lot fancier these days."
She knew what he was about to say so she beat him to the punch. "And don't give me that 'I was a knight' bullshit. Last I checked, you still had to junk the armor to take a piss just like any other man. Or did the oath make you some kind of alien with a codpiece full of wishful thinking. If that's what it takes to join your little club, you can just shove the book up your ass and hit the road."
Gryffon's face turned to stone. Through lips clamped shut, he hissed, "Never say that again. You must become a Knight."
"Why? Why is it so damned important that I become a Knight? Who cares? Screw the Black Rose. They want to take over the world, let them. Maybe they'll do a better job than the idiots running the place already."
She poked a finger into his chest. "I want you to tell me why I should care about becoming a Knight."
His eyes were flame and anger. She expected him to explode, to rail against her for daring to defy him. But she did not give in to the fear turning her stomach into knots. She stood there, toe to toe with him, matching his glare with steel of her own.
Until, little by little, his heat slipped away and the lines of face calmed down.
He leaned back on the stool. "What do you want from me?" he asked, not even looking at her.
Penelope knelt before him so she could look up into his face.
"Gry, I'm so scared. Everything that's happening, I don't understand it. I don't even know why these people are coming to kill me. But you keep closing me away. I need you to trust me enough to tell me what's really going on here."
He met her eyes and she bit her lip to keep from crying at the sadness she saw. Every line of him spoke of despair, like he was the most helpless man in the world.
And if that were true, she was in trouble. Big trouble.
Gryffon got to his feet, gently slipped away from her. "You must read the book. That's all I can tell you."
He walked to the door.
"Gry," she called to his back, "where was the justice in that story?"
Without a word, he left the apartment.