Year of Our Lord 1212
Blackchurch Training Grounds
Exmoor Forest, Devon
He never knew what hit him.
One moment, a stout recruit from Sudbury was standing there, and in the next, he was
on his back staring up at the blue sky. The blow he’d just taken literally knocked the wind
out of him. He couldn’t speak, not even to groan. He simply lay there and choked until a
massive shadow stood over him and thumped him in the chest.
“Breathe, Edgeworth,” came a voice that sounded like Lucifer himself. “Do not hold your
He thumped him in the chest again, and the man on the ground drew in a long, ragged
breath, gasping for air. Until that point, those around him seemed to be holding their breath
as well, waiting to see how the man was going to react to such a blow. It could have gone
either way—he could have succumbed to it and they would have carried him off the field.
Or he would climb to his feet and continue the exercise.
Recruits at Blackchurch, once carried off the field, did not return.
That was the rule.
It was a bright day on the fields of Devon, a bright day in the midst of several weeks of
bright days, which was unusual for what was usually termed a stormy coast. The north
coast of Devon, facing the Bristol Channel, could be turbulent when the seasons warranted
it. Those dark seas, with waters the color of sapphire, could churn up the silt and turn
shades of green and brown. They were active waters, full of pirates or merchants or both.
They were seas as dark as the Exmoor forest itself.
Much like Cornwall, Devon could be a mysterious land. It was far from London, far from
most of the hustle and bustle of England as a whole, and it tended to have its own legends
and ambiguities. There were beasts that roamed the moors and wood sprites waiting to
trap unsuspecting men. Fae lingered in the vales and serpents swam in the lakes. Devon
wasn’t heavily traveled when it came to the Exmoor forest, an area that sane men would
stay away from, and that made it a perfect place for the most elite training ground in
There were great castles like Kenilworth and Berkeley and Warwick who trained
powerful knights that went on to serve great lords and kings. Those were the reputable
castles with the reputable training programs, and nearly every nobleman’s son in England
aspired to train at one of those great training grounds.
And then there was Blackchurch.
It was in a league of its own.
As the man who spoke like Lucifer moved to the edge of the combat field to select
another club, because the one he’d used on Edgeworth had cracked down the middle, he
could see a couple of men lingering on the edge of the field. Casually, he tossed the
fractured club aside and went to weigh a couple of other wooden weapons that were
propped up in an iron stand. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the men approaching
“I’m surprised he can rise after a blow like that, Tay,” an enormous man with black hair
said. “That was a brutal strike.”
Tay Munro glanced at the man, a comrade and a friend, whom he’d known for years. “He
Tay found his club, feeling the weight in the palm of his trencher-sized hand. “Because he
has been faltering as of late,” he said, glancing at the group of trainees as someone peered
at the blood trickling from Edgeworth’s scalp. “He seems to have lost his motivation. I was
trying to help him find it again.”
“He is on his feet. That’s something.”
Tay looked at the man. “You’ve done the same thing, Fox,” he said. “I’ve seen you punish
a trainee or two with that superior skill you’ve acquired. There is no one finer with a blade
than you, and you make sure they know it.”
Fox de Merest, a powerful knight with both Saxon and Norman blood flowing through
his veins, fought off a grin. “That is my job,” he said, casually scratching at his neck. “I teach
them skills they’ll not get at Kenilworth. Only the strong survive. If men wish to be a
Shadow Knight, then they must earn the title. ’Tis the way of things.”
“Brawn is not always the way of things.”
Tay and Fox turned to the third man who stood with them. He was shorter than they
were by far, but that smaller stature did not mean smaller strength. In fact, his body was
solid muscle. Sinewy and powerful, the man who went by the name of Ming Tang was not
only an anomaly in England, but he was an anomaly anywhere in the Western world. There
were few like him, this man who had made his way from the Far East by way of land and
sea, finding his way to Blackchurch, where he taught those there skills that put them head
and shoulders above any warrior on any field of battle. Mysterious arts where a man used
his hands and feet to fight, using technique over sheer strength to subdue a man.
Ming Tang was a legend.
But he was also a friend to Tay and Fox, and he was unafraid to make his opinions
known. Something else he’d brought with him from the Far East was wisdom that exceeded
anything the Western world was capable of, because those in Ming Tang’s land thought
differently. They viewed life differently. It was that difference that made him so incredibly
valuable and unlike anyone England had to offer.
“Brawn may not always be the way of things, but it has served me well, and these men
must learn it,” Tay said. “But those without the brawn will have to make allowances.
Sometimes strength is not all about a man’s muscles.”
Ming Tang’s lips twitched with a smile. “I wonder who told you that?”
“A man who looked like you.”
Ming Tang’s smile broke through as he looked at Tay. “Then the trainer becomes the
trainee once again,” he said. “I have faith that my teachings have not gone to waste with
“I told you I wasn’t stupid. Dense, mayhap, but not stupid.”
That brought a chuckle from Ming Tang. “You are nothing of the sort,” he said. “You are
the Leviathan, bringing chaos and damage wherever you go. I should not like to be on your
bad side, my friend.”
Tay flashed straight white teeth. “Then stop trying to teach me your mystical
philosophies, or that very well may happen,” he said. “I am a simple man. You must treat
With that, he lifted his new club and headed off toward his training group, bellowing at
the men to form two lines because they were going to engage in the skirmish once again.
This was a new group of recruits, and he was trying to flush out some of the men who
wouldn’t be able to stand the more advanced training. That was his job, as one of the head
trainers at the Blackchurch Guild.
It was his job to find the survivors.
“You did not tell him,” Fox muttered. “I thought that was what we came here to do.”
Ming Tang’s dark eyes were fixed on Tay as the man rallied his recruits. “I did not have
the opportunity,” he said. “This is not the right time, Fox. Wait until he is finished, and I
shall tell him.”
“You’ll have to do it before she’s introduced into this group.”
That was the magic word. The woman recruit who had made it through the initiation
process. Women were rare at Blackchurch because the training was so difficult, but they
had been known to participate. They’d even been known to succeed.
But not with Tay Munro.
“He cannot refuse to train her in any case,” Fox said. “Lord Exmoor has taken a personal
interest in her, so she is here to stay whether or not Tay likes it.”
“He will not like it,” Ming Tang said, softly but firmly. “He tries to drive every woman to
failure, even more than the weak men he singles out. Unfortunately for him, the Lords of
Exmoor have determined this woman shall become a trainee, and Tay will simply have to
accept it. But I must say, I feel sorry for the woman.”
Fox grunted. “He is going to make her life miserable.”
Ming Tang nodded. The wind was picking up as the clouds began to roll in from the
north, skipping along with the sea breeze, and he pulled his robes more closely about him.
He wore the traditional clothing of his people, robes and breeches of undyed wool, and his
head was customarily shaved. It wasn’t heavy clothing, or particularly warm, which made
him cold most of the time. But his thoughts weren’t on the dropping temperature.
They were on Tay Munro.
A man who brought his own storms wherever he went.
“He is a man with a grudge to bear,” Ming Tang said quietly. “He is also a man of great
passion. That is a difficult combination when he feels strongly about something.”
Fox glanced at him. “That is a kind way of saying that every time he sees a woman, he is
reminded of the one who betrayed him.”
Fox signed heavily, watching Tay as he instructed his trainees. The man was positively
enormous, with long, dark hair that whipped around his head as the breeze picked up. He
was perhaps the strongest trainer they had, built for battle, but that powerful façade
protected something rather weak inside. Fox and Ming Tang and the other trainers were a
close-knit group. There wasn’t much they didn’t know about each other.
And they knew Tay was protecting something he’d had broken once.
God help any women who stood in his path.
“I’ll tell him when he has finished with this session,” Fox said quietly. “I’m not entirely
sure when Lord Exmoor intends to introduce this woman into his group, so he’d better be
told now so he can prepare.”
Ming Tang cocked his head curiously. “Prepare for what, I wonder?”
“We shall soon find out.”
Ming Tang nodded, but it was a gesture filled with trepidation. “That is what concerns
Fox couldn’t disagree. “When he is finished with this session, I shall take him into town
and ply him with drink,” he said. “That should make the news of the female a bit easier.”
“Whatever they serve at The Black Cock has that effect.”
Ming Tang was referring to the only tavern in the nearby town of Exebridge that was a
gathering place for Blackchurch trainers and anyone else brave enough to venture this far
into the Devon moors. It was run by a smuggler who brought his goods in through the
rough-and-tumble seaside village of Watchet, and the alcohol the man served was some of
the strongest around.
Just the thing to forget an impending female recruit.
“Mayhap you should come,” Fox said. “Tay will not become nearly as enraged if he
knows you are there. You are the only one able to calm him.”
Ming Tang pulled his robes closer about him as the wind began to pick up. “Possibly,” he
said. “But do not try to feed me any of that filth you drink. It is poison.”
Fox fought off a grin. “The last man who tried to put wine in your boiled drink is still
trying to recover from your beating.”
“It was not a beating, but a lesson.”
“I am not sure he sees it that way.”
Ming Tang cast him a long look before turning away, heading back to the heart of the
small village that Blackchurch encompassed. It used to be a bustling town with merchants
and peasants, but Blackchurch had long ago taken over every cottage, every building, and it
was where the trainers and associates critical to the function of Blackchurch lived. They
had an entire village to themselves, set within the dark Devon moors. For Ming Tang, it was
far from the beautiful Song Mountains of his homeland, this cold, dank land he found
But he’d found brothers here.
And one brother in particular would need him in about an hour.
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