Master of the Wood, Keeper of the Gradalis
The call of a seabird came in through the open window, rousing Ransom from a fitful sleep. He opened his eyes, confused by the smell of the salty sea air. In his dream, he’d been back at Tatton Grange, enduring the scent of sick and sweat in a stuffy bedchamber, curtains shut, as King Devon lay dying from poison. The horror of that scene had chained him to the nightmare, and once again he was a knight about to lose his master, worried about a possible future in exile, listening to the morbid groans of a dying man.
Ransom sat up in bed, breathing hard, trying to shake off the lingering feelings the dream had evoked. The sun was rising in the east, early still for it was late spring, and light glowed through the silk curtains hanging on the windows on that side of the room. On the other side of the chamber, the window was open, and he could hear the surf crashing against the shore. He loved falling asleep to that sound each night.
Looking next to him, he saw Claire fast asleep still, and his heart ached with a feeling of joy as well as the fear that this might be the dream and not the other scene. Her beautiful hair was nested against the pillow. Bending down, he gently kissed her shoulder, not wanting to awaken her. She murmured in her sleep, shifting slightly, and then the faint whistle of her breath resumed. His heart nearly burst with feelings of tenderness and gratitude. She was his wife, his duchess, and soon—so very soon—his new queen.
Ransom eased himself off the bed, moving carefully and quietly. He dressed in his breeches and a tunic, then tugged on boots and belted the Raven scabbard holding his bastard sword around his waist.
As he dressed, a feeling of danger, of warning, began to bubble inside his chest. He walked to the window, staring out at the seabound horizon. Not a cloud in the sky anymore. The storm had finally moved on. He glanced at the ships docked in the harbor, ships from the Vexin, a few from Brythonica, and the vessel waiting to bear him and Claire to Legault, where they would reclaim the title that was Claire’s birthright.
All looked well, but something felt wrong. It twisted inside his stomach, making the peace he’d felt upon seeing Claire sleeping beside him vanish. He did not sense the presence of Lady Alix, the poisoner who served King Estian of Occitania. This was something else, a preternatural warning unanchored to any specific object or person. Was it from the Fountain?
Ransom left the room and walked down the hall. The servants were already hurrying about, preparing for the day. Although nothing seemed unusual or out of order, the strange feeling did not lift.
When he reached the training yard at the castle, he noticed Guivret sparring against one of the other knights. Each wore a hauberk, bracers, and a helmet. Others were practicing beyond them, some doing drills, some dueling with each other. A few were even preparing their horses to practice lance work, something they accomplished by hitting a wooden target fixed with a counterweight.
Ransom’s mesnie had grown considerably since King Benedict had made him Duke of Glosstyr. Almost all the Elder King’s household knights had asked to join his mesnie—men like Sir Harrold, Sir Axien, and Sir Thatcher. But others had come too, seeking the favor of the man who had overnight become the most powerful lord of Ceredigion. He had more than enough income to pay for their service, but he did not allow the knights of his mesnie to lay abed and dream. Discipline was his expectation, for them and for him.
When Guivret saw him arrive, he stopped his duel with the other knight and joined Ransom as he approached a table to the side of the yard that held pieces of armor and weapons. Ransom put on a hauberk, and Guivret helped him buckle on a pair of bracers.
“May we fight, Lord Ransom?” the young knight asked. He had become Ransom’s squire after the death of his former master, Sir Terencourt of Brythonica.
“Just the two of us?” Ransom queried.
“Yes, my lord. I think I’m going to win today.”
“You expect so? A knight should be more humble.”
“If you say so, my lord.”
Ransom could hear the smile, although he couldn’t see it through Guivret’s helmet visor. He picked up his own helmet and put it on; then he and Guivret made their way to an open corner of the training yard. They drew their bastard swords and faced each other.
Ransom admired the lad’s pluck, but the nagging feeling in his chest had doubled. What was causing his unease? He glanced around the training yard, but all appeared as it should. With his Fountain magic, he sensed Guivret was about to attack him and raised his blade as the younger man lunged.
As their weapons clashed, a peal of thunder boomed over the cloudless blue sky. It was so loud, Ransom backstepped, swinging up his visor, his sword arm going down. Had lightning struck the castle? He looked up at the sky but found nothing to warrant such a sound. Not a single wisp of white lay above. A quick glance revealed the other knights were still going about their business, practicing alone or fighting. As if nothing had happened.
“Is something wrong, my lord?” Guivret asked, lowering his weapon.
“Did you hear that?” Ransom asked him.
“Hear what?” Guivret also raised his visor, a look of confusion now evident on his face.
“Thunder,” Ransom said, turning around in a circle.
Recognition dawned in Guivret’s eyes. “Get ready, my lord,” he said. “Prepare yourself.”
“What is happening?” Ransom whispered, feeling a strange nausea in his stomach. Wind began to kick through the courtyard, swirling fallen leaves and debris. It whistled past the stones.
“I should have warned you about the summons,” Guivret replied sheepishly. “Here, let’s go over there, where we’re less likely to be seen.”
Ransom didn’t understand what was happening, but he followed Guivret to the corner of the yard that was partially concealed by the weapons table.
And then he was gripped by the sensation of falling—as if he’d tumbled off a cliff—and a shock wave of pain roiled through him as though a shard of lightning struck him partway down. The episode ended as swiftly as it had begun, and he found himself standing in another place, one sheltered by thick woods. The dawn was just beginning to stab its light through the branches. The pleasant smell of trees surrounded him. Had time gone backward?
For a moment, he was struck by the oddity of the scene before him. A thick grove of trees. A small trickling stream. Some massive boulders, flecked with moss and lichen, were huddled together in a heap that was higher than him. There were hailstones everywhere, and a massive oak tree stood sentinel by the boulders. Several men lay in a heap, groaning and writhing. Through his Fountain magic, he sensed their weaknesses, their injuries.
In a rush, he remembered that the Duchess of Brythonica had told him that when he became the master of the wood, a position Sir Terencourt had passed on to him, he might someday be summoned to defend the Gradalis, an ancient relic of Wizr magic.
“Who is that?” someone asked in Occitanian from behind him.
Ransom turned and saw three knights in hauberks and dusty gray tunics. If they had any affiliation, they didn’t care to show it.
“Kill him,” one of the others said, also in Occitanian.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...