Exiles of Heaven

To all my fans, friends, family, and prospectives: I’m excited to announce Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Way & the Darkness is available with all the major retailers.

Amazon  +++  Kobo  +++  B&N  +++  Everywhere (via Universal Link)

Exiles of Heaven picks up with Lord Fallondon Breck and his company of knights recovering from an attack by the demon Baal and his followers. Struggling to resolve the demonic conflict breaking into their world, Fallondon and his friends realize the only way home is forward toward unknown enemies from both sides of the torn Veil. As the armies of Hell march toward Old England, angelic allies rally beside a band of brothers who fight to defend the helpless.

Many thanks to those who helped with beta reading, proof, and interest in the characters! I’m working hard to get Book 3, Map of the Stars, out soonest. In the meantime, I’ve included several chapters of Exiles of Heaven below for anyone interested in a free preview. Enjoy!

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Prologue
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea… The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’ Revelation 13:1-4
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But every now and anon a trumpet sounds from the hid battlements of eternity.
— Francis Thompson —

The Veil
The plain was eternity. A vast darkness spread overhead, punctuated with countless stars. It was a sharp contrast to the white sand stretching across the desert below me. Far below me. Like a hawk lazily riding warm currents, my mind glided over the stark scene below. Even at this elevation the white sandy floor kept going as far as could be seen. No markers broke the view, no rocks, no trees or scrub, nothing. Just pure white sand.
A starry canopy was stretched overhead. As I swooped down closer, individual grains of sand caught hold of the celestial illumination and sparkled. The sky was a dome strung with brilliant gemstones, like a fine net of pure starlight. With the ground in near view, my speed became apparent. Sand became a blur as I flew faster and faster toward the horizon. Something drew me like a beacon, a watchtower signaling all around it in the darkness.
Just across the rim of my vision a bright white mote of light shot up into the night sky. The brilliant pearl climbed and climbed, reaching for the stars above. For a moment I thought it would fall back, but it continued straight away. I’d seen firepots flung by great siege engines during the night yet this flare showed no signs of stopping. In seconds it was indistinguishable from the stars treading their silent dance. What could communicate with the heavens above like that? It was faster than any falling star, yet it ascended the heavens. My consciousness pondered the question as I raced toward the source.
I broke over the horizon and beheld something terrible. Rank upon rank of hideous creatures spilled across the plain. Demonic faces filled my vision. Tiny figures rode the edges, their scaly skin shimmering with the sand’s reflected light. Pitchforks and spears waved in the air about their wide-mouthed grins, pointed teeth and serpentine tongues smiling. Company upon company of tall soldiers wrapped in darkness and moving together in beautiful synchronism. My mind revolted at the sight of men with eyes but no faces. Taunt flesh covered the space where mouths and nose should have been. I felt part of my soul rip away when their gaze caught mine. Evil, hideous eyes.
The bulk of the force was an ethereal collection of soldiers. Thousands of insubstantial spirits marched in file. To my eyes their appeared as ethereal figures of mist and smoke. Insubstantial in form, yet clearly having power over the material world. Banded armor, pugils, javelins, and sandaled feet spoke of the Roman legions that once held my world in their grip. Their restless souls felt deathly silent, grim, and determined.
Hulking human-like figures marched in the rearguard. Several hundred of them. Their muscular forms were wrapped in iron plates, feet shod in thick boots. Wicked weapons bristled from their company, hooks and spikes and jagged edges marring already deadly instruments. The worst aspect were their heads, faces of lions with powerful jaws and teeth visible around fur-covered muzzles. They looked ravenous.
I wheeled around in the sky overhead, still taking in the army below. While the main and rearguards were formed of soldiers marching in rank, the vanguard was made up of a disparate collection of beasts. Off to the side was an enormous creature, like a beetle the size of the castle at Acre. Huge mandibles clicked before it, its bulk born by six carapaced legs digging in sand with each step. Armor of chitin and foul, unclean substance swathed the creature like an insect.
Movement caught my eyes. Serpentine forms swooped around the army, great bat-like wings scooping the thin air and hurling their snake-like bodies at great speed. They wore a feminine grace about them, all lean curves and deadly beauty.
Long spears born by heralds preceded the leaders of the army. Black banners hung limp in the still air. Dark pennons drooped like ink blots spilled over parchment. The lieutenants rode jet-black horses with dim red eyes and their breath fogging ahead. While their riders looked human, I knew they were anything but. A woman with flowing black hair, her beauty so great that my breath caught. Her dark dress left little to the imagination. A scent of sickly sweetness caught up in my nostrils. A smell of decay mixed with honey.
Two lords clad in darkness rode near her. They emanated great strength and power. My stomach threatened to lose itself from fear. Tooled scabbards held swords by their sides. Cloaks of whorled colors, deep purples, blacks, and greys flowed over their shoulders and masked their figures. Ahead rode another like them yet different. The standard bearer wore armor of iron plates, dull and dark. His visage was masked by a great helm with wicked horns twisting forward. I wondered where costume ended and monster began?
A fell captain rode at their head. There was no doubt who he was. A slim figure clothed in darkness, his pale skin complimented the sand around them. His cloak swirled in living whorls of inky blackness to wrap his form. It recalled distant memory, like the ink from a monk’s quill dipped in water. He rode atop a nightmarish coupling of creatures. Like the monsters of ancient stories it wore a long toothed snout atop the muscled body of some great cat. It reminded me of the crocodiles I once saw in Egypt whilst on campaign, but covered in course fur. One of the old gods worshiped while the Israelites were yet slaves of that nation.
Turning one last time, my spirit swooped over the forces marching across the barren plain. The captain’s eyes caught mine and followed my flight. He felt my presence. Fear filled my mind and quickened my heart. The high voice of an adolescent boy, scratchy, yet compelling and filled with strength, tickled my ears. “I see your spirit, Fallondon Breck. Come closer.”
I did not want to, yet my form was compelled to answer and circled in closer and closer to the captain. In an instant he reached out and grabbed my invisible form. I saw no flesh in his hand, nor anything of myself, yet he held on with crushing strength.
His grip tightened. Despite my ephemeral form, I fought to take in breath. None would come. He drew me before his eyes. Deep tunnels of obliterating darkness bore into me. A charge of banked coals sat deep within that pulsed with crimson light. Like a passage straight through the blackness of the world and into Hell itself.
His voice echoed through my mind like a smith’s hammer strokes in a closed chamber. Each word was filled such power it threatened to burst through my soul. “What is this I’ve caught? An insect fluttering at the flame. Beware lest you get too close little child. I are coming and none shall be left standing. My flame will consume the world.”
An explosion of light blinded me. Pressure pounded my body and mind as if an ethereal blacksmith forged away at the little iron of my soul. Then I was racing, faster than a falling star, accelerating as I raced toward oblivion. As if from a great height.

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Road to Wolford
Once again my night was marked by restlessness and terror. After my first encounter with the demon, Baal, I hadn’t known peace more than a few fleeting moments. His hideous aspect remained stamped on my memories. The trials of the road did little to help. We had recovered from the fight in the grove. The aftermath was a company of knights on edge. Knights jumping at every sound and seeking enemies behind every rock and tree. All waiting for a new despair to fall upon us. One day bled into the next through the pine forests separating Breckshire, my home, and Wolford. At long last, the road was nearing its end.
Not even a fortnight ago my thoughts were bent upon simple things. How to prepare Breckshire for our departure and the journey back to the Holy Lands. To Outremer. My heart was set on reclaiming the glory and treasures we had been denied years before. Restore Breckshire to its former state, a rich land filled with hearty people. Opportunities for my knights to win renown. In England, my adversaries were flesh and blood, neighboring lands with jealous hearts and voracious appetites. Surely Garret and Brenna would take up their roles in the family, defend our own. Daemarrel and Ardglass could be managed. Demons, however… Now I wrestled with the reality that our plans were wildly changed, my desires and perceptions changed by an encounter with one of the angelic host.
We sighted Wolford just past noon, three days after my encounter with Baal. Three days after our fight with the masked foes. Whilst we believed the distance could be made in a hard two days, we did not expect to lose time with a hackney throwing her shoe. Horses. Never could rely on the animals. Worse than the trouble with the shoe was the challenge of finding someone to fix it. Thomas had most of the tools, but any good ironmonger or farrier could have provided a better kit to do the work. We spent most of a day riding between homesteads looking for one. We saw little but empty farms, their mud-daubed sides collecting spring warmth, their thatch wearing thin from disrepair. Occasionally, some animals wandered about, left behind, but no people to be seen. No carles about their work. No children chasing geese. No boys following their fathers about their work. All we found was a troubling sign.
The sigil. We first noticed it two days earlier as we left the confines of pine forest for pasture and crofts. First a homestead off the road, then more and more doors bore a splash of whitewash. Simple lines, a triangle and hashmarks encircled. A pentagram? Something else? No one could place it. No one saw those who scribed it. No peasants seeding the spring fields, no herdsmen out tending cows, no shepherds in the field to ask. Just door after door bearing a white mark.
It wasn’t until the low hills gave way to a plain and Wolford came into sight that signs of our pastoral economy returned. The fields rolled in gentle waves all the way down to the river. We were mariners riding a verdant crest, gazing across green waves stretching from horizon to horizon. The smell of grass filled my nose with its sweet scent. Before us now was the safe harbor we sought, Wolford.
“Baldur, what are you sniffing at there? Anything to share?” I caught a quick glance as he hid whatever it was in his bracer, tucking it between metal and forearm. Hart’s mount sidled up next to mine.
“Must be powerful to overcome yer smell, Fallon. No one wants to say anything, but ye could use a dip in the river.” Hart laughed in jest. He needed the same treatment. Saxon humor at its finest.
Baldur blushed. “Something of Elaine’s, that’s all m’lord. A token for my travels. I miss her from time to time and this little strip of scarf helps. She kept lavender pressed between the folds. The scent reminds me of her. Of Bethany too.” The old man smiled beneath his grizzled cheeks. We all teased him ever since he courted and married his beautiful French bride. I could understand the need to center oneself when the world threatened to fall apart around you. Loved ones were certainly part of that. His wife and adopted daughter were the center of Baldur’s world.
“We’ll be back sooner than you know, Baldur. A few days in Wolford at best. Just enough to get our new errand sorted out. Elaine will be surprised for certs when you roll up on your warhorse, looking like the knight you are.”
Hart laughed again, “Only she’ll be sore that ye return without heaps of silver and fine gems for her hair. I’ll admit, I will miss our reward.”
“Nothing to fear, Hart. If we suspect anything like we imagine, staying near at hand to defend our people is more worthy than anything we’d find in Jerusalem. No amount of gold nor gems could replace our people. We must ensure their safety first.” Safety from an unknown, unexpected threat. A threat I could not manage myself. Baal’s cryptic words lingered in my mind. What was coming against us? What could men like us do?
Tadessah unfurled our standard as we neared the town gates. Thick trunks of pine made a sturdy palisade around a collection of plain warehouses and homes. Wolford lay on a bend in the Oster River, a town built of the forest surrounding lush farmlands. Brown tones blended together as wood and riverstone structures filled our vision. Small patches of vibrant grass and wildflowers added color. My father always thought Wolford idyllic, a quiet respite when traveling abroad. I saw it as a rock to cling to in the midst of a storm-wracked sea. A place to catch our breath before plunging into cold water again.
“I can’t help thinking about what happened, Fallondon. Masked marauders, demonic intrusions, an angelic visit, and now a sigil. It is like the world is holding its breath. I saw evil during my travels, but nothing like this. You put my homeland to shame. What is going on, m’lord?” Tadessah’s punctuated accent made me smile. The Ethiopian was a hard knight, yet recent events unsettled even him.
“I wish I knew, Tadessah. Your fears are rightly placed, and the question of what to fear is still before us. An unseen foe of the spiritual realm? Masked men and women in black dress? Who can tell? Our enemies in Outremer came at us straight on, but this feels altogether different. Hopefully, the town master knows more. Hard to believe Orderic wouldn’t have some information about the state of things. Besides, a straw mattress won’t go amiss. Too many nights abed on the ground, eh?” I raised my hand in salute at the gates before us. A maille-clad watchman returned the gesture. I didn’t share my own confusion with Tadessah. After the events of the past week I felt more distressed and anxious over keeping my men safe, protecting our lands, and returning to my family than ever before. They would be looking for leadership that only I could provide, yet I felt inadequate to the task. Such a strange dichotomy.
“Thanks be to that m’lord. Any answers will be welcome.” Tadessah smiled back at me, then turned to cry out at the watch, “Peace be upon you this day. Your liege, Lord Fallondon Breck, of Breckshire calls. We bear the sign of peace between our towns, and request you open the gates. Bid your master hearken to my lord.”
I grated at the call. I’d never felt comfortable hearing all of that strung together. To these men, to my family, I was just plain old Fallon.
Two men outside the gates lifted their spears in salute. Neither wore much to speak of, only simple leather jerkins and steel caps. In times of peace the watch had little need for more. I spied movement in the barbican above. The wooden gates swung open a few minutes later, time enough for our train to have caught up in a clutch outside. The strength of Wolford was apparent in the thick oak beams crossbracing the doors, a solid deterrent to any trying to break through. I recalled that a moat was being dug out on the northern side as well. No small undertaking for such a small town. Breckshire wasn’t much larger in size, but Wolford had existed longer and showed the diligent stewardship of capable hands. The people were strong and industrious, a tribute to our lands.
“Hail, Lord Breck, we hearken to you. Enter in peace and find respite.” An armored man approached our company from the gate, sword swinging at his side. Whilst thick in his middle, his arms and shoulders bore the signs of good muscle, and I guessed he was more than capable of his martial duties. “My name is Brendan, but people here call me Brent. I’m captain of the town guard. We saw your standard and my lord Orderic is being told of your arrival. He’ll be most glad to see thee m’lord. Troubling times for us all, as you’ve surely seen. You are all most welcome.”
I swung down from my saddle, taking the reins in hand as I walked through the gates. The company began dismounting behind me, a cacophony of jiggling and grunts from man and beast. “Thank you, Brent. Your courtesy is appreciated. Indeed, we have noticed signs of trouble, and I have many questions. Before I speak to Orderic though, what may I learn from you? We came straight through the forest road and only saw signs on this side. Do you know what I speak of?”
Brent flushed for a moment. “Tis ill omens that you saw. Maybe two weeks ago we first heard of trouble. Farmers and peasants began coming into town and complaining of illness. We quickly thought to hold them off, fearing disease through the town, but little came of it. By the time we dispatched riders to learn more, we were too late. Farms and crofts were emptied. The dead were all that remained, skin infected with boils and pox. The white mark became a byword, the notice of death on a house. Where it came from, no one could answer.”
I struggled to hear this. How close had we come to anyone in the past few days? None of us found bodies, and I couldn’t recall any of our company affected by ill humors. “Thank you Brent. I think we are safe from what I know, but we’ll bear that in mind. Please go back to your work. We’ll find our way now that we’re here. You no doubt have important matters to attend.” Important work like ignoring clear signs of trouble in your master’s demesne. Cynicism rose like oil over water within me.
Brent made his obeisance, touching his maille coif and saying a firm, “Thank ye, m’lord,” before stepping back to the gate house. A soft peel of thunder announced the great oak beam dropped into place and locking us in. The great iron hinges and strapping made me feel secure. At least as much as I could feel that way with current events on my mind.
Inside the gate a broad open space opened where travelers or defenders could orient themselves. The streets were packed earth, rutted with the travel of high-wheeled wains common in our lands and trampled by both animals and men. The smell of dry manure swept past us on a breeze scouring the nearby stables. Whilst not as dirty as some places, Wolford had the same collection of chickens, goats, dogs, and other beasts adding to the local color. Most fearsome were the bare foot children running amok and splashing up water from horse troughs. In the warm spring air it must be a welcome respite. A few townsfolk, mostly women, wandered the streets with baskets and sacks of laundry, vegetables, and other domestics. No different than any other village or town across the Broads.
Baldur circled our animals up, men now afoot and gathered together. Sweat dripped down our faces under the bright noon sun. I raised a hand to begin, “Welcome to Wolford. You’ve all been here before, so introductions aren’t needed, but we must make the best of our time here. I’ll take Baldur, Paulson, and Hart to visit Orderic and discuss what we’ve seen. Tadessah, you and Malvyn get everything else in order. Thomas, how long before the horses can be turned about?”
Thomas pulled his hat off, clenching it with big hands. “Didn’t do a good enough job these past days, not with our light kit. I’d like to shoe at least three of them, m’lord, but I can likely be finished before tomorrow noontide. The rest are all plenty fresh. We hadn’t really pushed them too hard. May be faster if Gregory can help as well.”
“That’ll do. See to it, and let’s not make the same mistakes again, eh? We want to make the return journey without delay.” Thomas blushed and returned his hat after a bow. Baldur shot arrows at me, a silent warning that my barbs were too sharp and unwelcome. Well, I certainly wasn’t responsible for shoeing the horses so poorly in the first place.
Fulcher and Hugh were speaking through their hand language, a string of deft motions catching my attention on the periphery. Fulcher broke into the conversation, “M’lord, if it’s alright, we’ll be down at the waterfront. Maybe we can learn something from the river men. If there’s anything of use for Breckshire we’ll be alert to it. Mayhap we’ll find the parish as well. See if any of our brethren have passed this way.”
I nodded. Good thinking. Whilst we were still learning to work together, it was a good sign that everyone knew what to do and thought outside of expectations. “Well thought of. We’ll meet back at the inn tonight. Jody, you and Tibald can make arrangements for us. No need for us to impose on Orderic’s household if we don’t need to. Maybe talk with Brent here about what his men have seen. Squires, you’re to tend to the horses with Thomas. We’ll judge tonight how we stand. Maybe we can get us gone late tomorrow.”
Nods passed between us, a collection of ‘Yea m’lords,’ and we broke our separate ways. I passed Starchaser’s reins over to Helfric as Baldur and Hart did the same with their mounts and Sheldon. Our squires were good lads, well trained with horseflesh.
“Fallon, any word for us?” Hart brushed his cloak back, dust falling away. The heat sucked moisture out of the air and turned the roads into endless desert paths. You’d never know we’d had rain only days before.
Standing next to me I had to look up into Hart’s eyes. Even with rations on the road he still loomed over me and looked so full. His constancy was a small joy for me. I didn’t know how I’d survive without him, closer than kin and loyal to a fault.
“Nothing to be concerned with. Orderic’s been an excellent steward of this town. My father wouldn’t have brooked any misuse. It’s been some time since I’ve been through, but his reports are all in order and things seem fine. I want to know more about the sigil we’ve seen, and why we haven’t heard more before this. I don’t suspect trouble, but one never knows. Just be wary.”
Baldur said, “M’lord, I caution you to watch your words. You’ve been uptight the past few days. With good reason, yet you are taking it out on those around thee. Everyone is trying their best. Keep that in mind before you drive allies away with your manner.”
“I thank you for that, friend.” I did not feel all that thankful.
Paulson dusted off as he approached. Everyone else’s blue tabard and cloak looked like mine, a mix of caked dirt and debris clotted on the hems. The woad dye was tolerant of such things, but would surely lighten if we gave them the heavy washing they needed. Paulson’s Templar white looked more like russet given the stains. We were pack of mongrels to observant eyes and hardly the trim knights one might expect.
I smiled. Maybe wolves, not mongrels. Quiet and fierce. Sucking my gut in and pulling my shoulders back, I waved into town, “On to the master’s home, friends.”

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Beriah
Josephial’s glorious angelic radiance was dimmed. He pulsed with an inconsistent light that reflected his emotions. Too many things all happening at once, and here he was approaching his superior for help. How could he explain any of it? The walls of the garrison passed by with hardly any notice as he focused on the task ahead. Crowds of his peers gathered, looking down from the balconies rising story upon story overhead. The great atrium rose like a fluted vase, twisting in long lines to an opening far above. The Heavenlies gave off a consistent, warm, and breath-taking light. The source, all around them yet reaching for eternity, pulsed with the beat of Creation. Its constant presence spoke to everyone gathered within, including the warrior just returned. The Citadel of Beriah was astir with energy. The angel host were on edge.
Whysper threaded her way to Josephial and buried herself in his chest. She drew him into a deep embrace, tears flowing down her perfect face. Josephial cracked a smile and pulled her in tighter.
“Good to see you little sister.”
“Where were you? We had no word.” She backed away and looked up at his face. She noticed the signs of combat. She inspected his arms, saw the cuts and gouges. They had already begun to heal, but were still very apparent. His armor bore fresh marks as well, the metal plates scratched and dented in new ways. “Are you alright?”
Josephial smiled broadly and held her shoulders in his hands. “I am. No more than a scratch. I may be well, but I bear ill news. I must speak with him. Is he here?”
Whysper broke contact and crossed her arms. “You show up smelling of a fight, say it’s only a scratch, and demand to see a Choir Lord? Nothing for your comrade? No story? How many missions have we served together and yet you forget how things work?”
The tall angel turned his head. His dark skin wouldn’t blush, but Whysper saw the sting of shame in his eyes.
“Why didn’t you bring me with you?”
Josephial motioned for them to continue walking. Other ears were listening and it might be best to be about his errand. “I’m sorry, Whysper. I felt a call pulling in my mind and I reacted. It was good I did. Adonael told me of the charges he protected across the Veil. This one was special to my brother. Fallondon Breck. I don’t know how, but his appeal reached me. How could I stay and leave him defenseless?”
“You could have found me. I’ve been dying here trying to learn what Azrael is doing. Research is numbing. A mission would have been welcome distraction. I want to be out in the field once more.”
“That’s what concerns me. The call to Fallondon’s side was not some cry of fancy. He was attacked. By one of them.”
“One of who?”
“Azrael’s new lieutenants. Baal.”
“What?” Her words echoed up the atrium and betrayed the strong emotion and surprise behind them. Others began to notice the pair as they approached the far side of the hall.
“Quiet. I fought Baal. I saw him in that cavern, down in the press but near Azrael. I haven’t seen many of the great ones together like that. The best information we had said Baal was still assigned to Amayon’s cardinal forces. I saw him there though, as well as Lilith and Molech. There were others I recognized too. They were not part of Azrael’s cohort to begin with. Certainly not Baal.
“The glade was a shock. Baal moved with purpose. He was marking Fallondon and his company. Knights, I think. He woke into the dreamscape of Zirah, into the dream, and confronted the demon there. If I hadn’t come there’s no telling what Baal would have done. I was able to turn Baal aside and drove him out of Zirah before he snuffed out the knight. Worse, I sensed an evil tinge approaching as I left. I suspect Baal is raising his followers once again. It was no coincidence that these events took place together. If he is actively part of some design, then Azrael must know about it.”
Whysper walked in silence for a few moments more. Josephial felt better with each step. The energy of the atrium, the presence of his brethren and kindred, it all flowed through him. It seeped deep into his being like a parched tongue sipping that first taste of cool water after a stretch of desert travel. Whysper was churning through ideas within. She acted frustrated when given a problem, but Josephial knew she was the best analyst of their battalion. “I still don’t understand how they can do it. Where was Baal when you met him?”
“In England. With this mortal.”
“No, which realm? You said Zirah. Are you sure?”
Josephial thought back, remembering the fight. “I am. He was no longer in the Heavenlies, nor Beriah with us. Fallondon could see him. He fought him. He must have been dreaming. Baal was certainly in Zirah then. But that doesn’t make sense?” He hadn’t thought of it too much up till now, but the matter confused him.
“It does if they are traveling the Veil. He could make that shift without difficulty. Josephial, that’s where I think they are. The Veil.”
He stopped and looked her. Her radiance shone brightly, even among a host of angels like her. Josephial had fought beside Whysper for millennia. She was as near family as anything, though not like his lost brother Adonael. She gave a grim smile. Satisfaction at being right mixed with frustration at the truth she revealed.
Josephial processed the information. Everything began to make sense now as pieces fell into place. The sacrifice. The energy. But Baal’s place in it? Still no answer there.
“Come. We must tell Saraquel. He must know what we do. Surely, he’ll know what to do. If you’re right, then this changes everything.”

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Wolford
Tadessah and Malvyn organized the rest of the company after Fallon departed. Fulcher and Hugh were quick to pass off their horses to the squires and head down to the riverfront. Wolford’s stables were all near the main gate, so getting the horses situated was an easy task. The typical collection of young boys scampered here and there, changing straw in the paddocks, tossing fodder from the loft down into waiting baskets. Orderic’s animals and those of the more affluent in Wolford were good companions for the company’s crusading stock. The town’s farrier was a jovial man named Tim who took an instant liking to Thomas and Gregory. The pair were quick to unpack their panniers and get to the work of shoeing horses.
Tadessah watched as activity unfolded around him. “Jody, looks like the squires and journeymen have their work before them. Unless you need us, Malvyn and I will go and start finding our resupply. You find out what you can from the inn. Maybe there are some chapmen about who will know more of recent events. The tracks leading here were deep enough, likely at least a few wains made it through in the early spring. Maybe they’ve got goods to sell too.” They hadn’t seen any wagons or carts on the road, but some may have come in by other paths. Traveling merchants were common across Breckshire and the villages between Daemarrel in the north and Ardglass to the south. The Ethiopian smiled, “Will you and Tibald be alright? I suspect there will be ale, meat pies, and at least one or two lasses waiting to be enthralled with your tales.”
Jody grinned. Tibald blushed and said, “Aye m’lord. We can do that. But will ye be alright here? I know we’re used to men of color in the household, but…eh…”
Tadessah smiled back, “I’m sure the people of Wolford will be fine. God made us all in His image, is it not so? More important than skin, I know the color of my coin is the same as any man’s. I’ve been here before. They will hearken to me. Do not doubt that my friend.”
Tibald and Jody both nodded and made their obeisance, then stepped away. Malvyn walked up, swinging empty saddle bags over his shoulder. “Any trouble?”
“None today. Just the same worries all men have. We all fear change. Difference. To ground ourselves we compare. It comes much easier than acceptance, but I fear it not.” Tadessah unbuckled his scabbard to position it against his waist. The curved blade rested easily there before he swung his own panniers over his shoulder. Like the others he wore sturdy garments for travel though unique to his culture in color and cut. A vest sewn over with heavy rings caught the day’s light and chimed as he shifted his load. His black hair and beard were speckled with the beginnings of grey hair, all setting off his dark face and sparkling eyes.
Malvyn waited while he adjusted the weight. “Do you not miss your lands? Your people?”
Tadessah’s grin widened. “Of course I do. I will always long for my home. You would appreciate it, Mal. Great plains stretching from horizon to horizon, lush with game. Your deer and boar are nothing compared to the herds we hunt. And all may hunt equally, no matter who they are. You would feel your heart pound when you face down the lion alone, spear in hand. My people lived in a city among the clouds, but I also appreciate what we have here. Things may feel lean, but I’ve rarely known a time of so much bounty. Your people are more reserved, but they love and care like all others. Your cousin makes me part of his family, which I lost long ago. So for that reason I put aside my longing, and I now have a brother in Hart, a brother in Fallondon, and even in you. Are we not brothers, my friend?”
Malvyn flinched when Tadessah took his shoulder. It wasn’t as simple as he made things out to be. “Of course you are. These people are different, not like the household Fallon keeps. Seems like a lot to ask of a man. I know we worship the same God, but so many across our lands know no different. It cannot be easy to escape their ignorance, to hope they will judge you appropriately. Fallon is a generous man but his sway over the people may not reach so far.”
“We cannot expect them to judge us until they know us.” Tadessah chuckled in his usual way, “Why waste your worry beforehand? Besides, I trust your cousin. He took me under his protection in Outremer. Most crusaders would have slain one of my color and would have thought no more of it than another Saracen. Fallondon and Baldur were smart enough to pierce the veil between expectation and truth. They saw me for who I truly am, a Christian like you.”
“You place too much trust in one man.”
Tadessah stared hard at Malvyn, seeking something behind those words. In a moment he continued, “I know he is troubled by his deeds in Syria. He is not a perfect man. Like all of us, he must learn to deal with his actions and their consequences. Mayhap his worst scars are in his heart, but he is true.”
“So everyone says.” Malvyn tried to smile, but came up short. He placed a hand on Tadessah’s shoulder. “Forgive me. I wasn’t there with you.”
“I know. I didn’t know your father well, but Amalric also placed great trust in Fallondon. I can only say my own part of the story. He’s had every reason to forget one such as I, yet he does not. Nor you, nor the other squires, nor any in his care. Give him a chance to show you.”
“Aye. We shall see. I came to fight and to make a name for myself. Thus far we’ve only had action with a handful of rogues. Now we intend to turn back? I do not dispute the reason for it. I am waiting though…waiting for more.”
“I was a young man once. I left home in anger to take the cross and journey north. There is enough hatred in the world to thrice fill a lifetime. I don’t doubt you will find it soon enough. I repeat what others have said, that you be wary of that call. It is not easily put down even when finished. But enough of such talk. It is nothing. Here, we shall see what they think of dark men.” Tadessah pointed towards two carts in the town’s square. Neither was fully laden, but there was enough to attract a small clutch of women passing trade between them. “Let’s see what we can find, then go to the miller and ask about grain. The hunting was fine between here and home, so we’ll not lack for meat. I wouldn’t mind more bread. What say you?”
Malvyn smiled back, but it bore the look of something forced. “Aye, let us see. Thank you for your words. I know there is much evil to be found in men. Even the best of men. Better to be wary than fall into their hands.”

— —

A withered husk of a man sat before me, withering further under my relentless questioning.
Paulson, Hart and myself all sat at one side of the great table in Orderic’s hall. The room was large for such a small household. No doubt at some point it held many families. Now it was just Orderic and his children. The man’s wife had died while I was in the east. His sons and daughters were grown. Only three remained behind, a son and two daughters. One for the spear, two for the cooking. The younger poured wine from a clay jar. None would say she was beautiful, but her smile betrayed a simple satisfaction with her duties. Her older sister stirred the noon meal over a banked fire. Both wore the familiar features of their mother, now a memory from my youth. Orderic’s house was certainly peaceful and a reminder of my innocent past.
“Thank you, m’lady.” I smiled back before continuing, “Orderic, how long have you known of the sigil? We haven’t had tidings in Breckshire for several weeks. I can’t help but wonder at how long this has been going on. When did you first learn of the sigil?”
Orderic smiled at me, but his face was mixed with frustration. I’d been asking the same question in different ways for the past ten minutes, and the answer was not what I wanted. “M’lord, I know you don’t like to hear this, but it truly was sudden. Not even a fortnight past we had the first signs of trouble. I’ve dispatched riders since you warned us of Daemarrel’s incursions, and they reported nothing ill at hand. When we heard of the white sign we tried to learn as much as possible.” He pointed towards the table. “Before you is the note I was preparing just now. I don’t trouble you with the daily concerns we face, nor do I expect that from you. We each have solid walls and good people to help us manage. It’s like a thousand small troubles coming together at once, and only now can the common thread be teased out of the weave.”
Blue eyes stared back at me from his craggy face. A dark bushy beard masked many of the lines carved with age. Gray hair sprinkled throughout marked his many years, and from the gut hanging over his wide leather belt one could guess many meals as well. Father had trusted him though, and after years in our service I had no reason to feel otherwise.
Paulson rose and received a refill in his cup, then switched sides to sit by Orderic. His Templar tabard hung from the man’s fit form with ease. He was completely relaxed to my eyes. Subtle in the Templar way, but well timed. I was targeting the man with my ire. Paulson began, “Fallondon, maybe it’s just not the answer you want to hear. Do you believe people are trying their hardest? We’ve had our own troubles as well, and I don’t recall anyone sending out missives to the outlying people. All of the holdings are under threat. The question remains the same. What will we do about it?” Paulson was calm as ever, even when challenging me.
Hart slammed a fist onto the table. Cups and papers jumped, as well as two startled women and several men. “Fallon, what have we been missing? What’s the family crest of Daemarrel?”
“The wolf. A wolf with a broken branch gripped in its jaw.”
“What if the sigil is a version of their crest? Sprawled quickly and easy for an illiterate man to make?”
Orderic nodded, “Yea, m’lord. I remember something similar on their shields in my youth. It could be.”
I said, “It may be. It may be something new. We can’t tell for sure yet. Maybe they are one and the same? Those men in the forest weren’t marked. Hard to say one way or another. Like Paulson said, our question remains. What to do?”
Orderic continued, “M’lord, all I can tell from the tales reaching my ears is that something is amiss. We’ve faced sickness before, but this feels different. I hear whispers passed between folk. Fires burning in the old pine groves at night. Chants drifting through the morning mists, catching the ears of gooseherds out in pasture. Not just the imaginings of young boys, mind you. To the north, riders in black and red harassing the crofts. Nothing like open battle, but people in their homesteads pressed for provisions, or some small bauble or precious thing. You know, as well as I, the border is anything but a border. Most folk just want to be left alone. They won’t raise these concerns. We all manage as best we can.”
“I know, friend. I don’t judge you or any here. We are seeing the same things. A larger threat seems to be growing around us. Filling in the emptiness we often forget is there. Think of the men who attacked us. It’d be easy to assume we’re all insulated from the wider world, but things are more connected than we know. News travels. I wonder if Daemarrel is planning something more organized against us, or are they in league with Ardglass. Now that would be terror.” I knew it was true. The combined strength of those lands, pinching us between, would be difficult to challenge. Impossible, really. Who knew if there was a connection between the attacks here and my encounters with the angel Josephial in my dreams?
Baldur had been quiet thus far, but broke into the conversation like he read my thoughts. “M’lords, something we haven’t spoken of yet are the dreams. I can understand armed men and their threat, but who can deny the spirit running through this. Fallon, tell him of your encounter in the forest.”
I blushed, but nodded and began my tale. Orderic listened carefully. His daughters, sitting just outside the fire’s shadows, could not help but listen too, and I caught their heads turned toward me more than once. How silly I must sound. A grown man telling tales of monsters from a chapel prayer book. The old man stared at me as I finished, weighing me in his mind, no doubt. The attack in the grove by masked men was at least plausible. Few rational men talked openly of demons. Even our friars and priests rarely made commentary of the subject. Who was the boy imagining things now? I didn’t expect what came next.
“I know Sir Paulson is your chaplain, so he has undoubtedly spoken to you and prayed. I too have found our brothers of the cloth. I have had similar dreams of late. This creature, you called him Baal, well he has visited me too. I see him with a group of followers, a coven of some sort, who worship him in thrall. I feel like he is preparing them for something. At least, that is the sense I have. Who can say? As a young man I longed for pitched battles to prove myself. Now I worry about watering myself in bed, waking in sweat to terrors like this. It shames me, but there’s the truth. I believe you Fallondon. Now, what will you do?” His daughters were blushing at his words. Honest and frank.
I turned and saw everyone staring at me, even the women. Paulson and Hart nodded to me. They were behind me no matter what. “We prepare for a stand. Against what, I do not yet know, but we all feel it. I intend to turn around tomorrow, two days hence at the latest, to return to Breckshire and begin preparations for a siege. We’ll send out patrols to secure the borders and dispatches to collect information. I know the southern routes will be challenging. No towns between here and Ardglass, but the crofts and homesteads must be warned. We’ll align our efforts with Waenrye as well. I know you’ll stand alongside Breckshire. Hopefully, we won’t stand alone.”
Orderic nodded back, “Sounds like as good a plan as any, m’lord. I’ll tell Brent to do the same. We can have at least two or three small patrols mounted and about without hurting our strength here. We’ll try to get more hands to help with the moat as well. Once the digging is finished we’ll open it up to the Oster. Water was a good deterrent in my father’s time, no different now. We can also make provision for a courier to Breckshire. The road appears safe for now, even if the farms bear the mark of sickness.”
Paulson leaned in, hands clasped. “M’lords, I hope this doesn’t sound contrite, but remember to pray. If these things be the devil’s work, then we must bring our most potent weapon to bear. I will speak with the brethren here and beseech them to take up their holy calling, and to prepare their flock.”
I smiled, “Be that as it may, I’d rather meet my enemies with steel in hand than words on my lips. Your people can do their part, Paulson. We all need His protection.” I knew Paulson was right. That didn’t mean I liked it. Milksop priests and fat friars babbling words into nothingness. If God was real, then He expected us to take care of ourselves, that was plain. Father never said it quite so, but he was always a man of action first, a man of the church second. The past fortnight gave me no excuse to change that.
Orderic had the same look on his face and nodded at me. His daughters blushed a bit, but said nothing. Prayer was important, but action was vital. I knew of no words that stopped arrows. “What else is there? Are there options to speak of? What say you friends?” I felt good with the discussion thus far. Bringing our strength to bear seemed like the best thing.
The strident call of a horn, followed by the church bell ringing, tore our attention away. Orderic was up and reaching for his sword, hung over the mantle nearby. Despite his age and condition he was spry as a spring lamb now. With practiced ease he strode for the door with a quick step. “Alarm, m’lords. Action at the gate.”

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