“You needed to see me, Majesty?” Trey gave Bran a brief, puzzled look as he rose from his short bow. It was unlike Bran to conduct business during festivities, which were rare as they still worked tirelessly to restore the kingdom that had been ruled by mayhem for more than five years. It was odder still that Bran was conducting business in his private quarters, and had been almost since the Spring Fair had begun that day.
“None of that,” Bran dismissed the formality with a gesture. “You are, I am told, well acquainted with Lord Montaine of Bellewood?” He indicated the man in the chair across from him. The man was tall and skinny, age having robbed him of the massive build he’d once possessed. His gray hair still contained strands of strawberry blonde, the wrinkles in his face relating the active, happy life he had led.
“Of course,” Trey sketched a bow to the thin, gray and haunted looking man. “I have known him since I was lad.” He paused. “Your children, too sir, I have known for many years. I was surprised you did not bring them with you.” Trey’s thoughts flitted to Montaine’s absent children, a girl with strawberry blond hair like her father’s had once been, and his same blue-green eyes. She had always been smiling, and loved to dance – always insisting Trey dance with her, though he refused to dance with anyone else. But it was the youngest, Montaine’s son, on which his thoughts lingered longest, a young man who was the spitting image of his deceased mother. Midnight curls and pale skin, he spoke quietly and smiled softly, until he spoke of magic or roses. Then he turned all fire.
More than once, in later years, Trey had wondered what it would be like to stoke those fires. But guilt had kept him from trying – the boy was six years his junior. Even had that not been a problem, there was the fact that he was the son of a prosperous and well-respected lord. Heir to the Bellewood name and lands, it was hardly suitable that he take up with a nameless, landless knight – even one who had won the favor of two kings.
Guilt, among other things.
Bran nodded, looking pleased at his observation. “They are unable to come, Trey. Their absence is the reason I called for you.”
“Bran…” Trey was confused. “Come to your point. You know my dislike for riddles. Did you want me to deduce why Dunstan and Beatrice are missing? Even a year after your taking the throne, the lands are not entirely safe. Dunstan has not visited the palace since Vladimir took over – I presumed they had been sent away for protection.”
Beside Bran, a man with dusky skin and gold eyes chuckled softly. “So impatient, my Lord of Mistdale.”
“What be the problem, Dragon?” Trey asked irritably.
“Sit, Trey.” Bran motioned his Captain to a seat. “This is a tale that will take some time to tell.”
Trey obeyed, shooting another glare at Topaz, who was snickering softly at him.
“Topaz, if you please?” Bran looked at the dragon. “I still do not have a firm grasp of the magic the people here take for granted. The explanation will make more sense coming from you.”
“Of course,” Topaz assented, smiling fondly at the king. He turned serious and addressed Trey. “Lord Montaine has long protected our coastline from pirates and other threats. This you know. He does so with both steel and magic – magic that is probably the most superior in the land.”
Montaine nodded. “The magic skipped me, but it showed up strongly in my son. My father believed the boy would surpass him, some day. We…we never imagined it would be his downfall…”
“His downfall?” Trey repeated, horrified. Something in his chest twisted and began to ache. “Is Dunstan…”
“He is not dead,” Topaz hastened to explain. “Not yet, anyway. Lord Montaine takes great risk, coming to us with his problem.”
Montaine let out a long, shuddering sigh. “I had no choice. If I am to save him, I must risk us all. Gods forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Bran said forcefully. He turned to Trey, “His son has been cursed. I do not understand it much, except that he is not dead though that was the intent of the curse.”
Trey frowned. “That does not happen. Curses are forbidden because they are killing magic.”
Topaz explained. “Vladimir, unbeknownst to any at the capital, had made arrangements with mercenaries to help in his takeover – an outside threat that the crown and his council would not expect. But to get into the country they first had to get by the magic set down by the Bellewood Mages. The only northern access was through the open stretch guarded by the Bellewood. All the rest was jagged cliff and sharp rocks hidden in the waves, to tear apart the boats that got too close.
“They killed Montaine’s father. But something went wrong when they attempted to kill Dunstan. Rather than killing him, the curse turned him to stone – and somehow it also managed to freeze the protections set along the coast and the Bellewood lands. The majority of the mercenaries were unable to get past the barriers.”
Silence fell as Topaz finished explaining.
“He was turned to stone?” Trey asked in disbelief. “I have never heard of such a thing, save in children’s tales.”
“It is rather strange, is it not?” Topaz asked. “Under any other circumstance I would say it is fascinating. Sadly the situation is too grim for us to regard it so lightly.”
“But it has been a year since Vladimir’s death. Why is all of this coming up only now? Surely the mercenaries have long since given up and retreated.”
Montaine shook his head, “Most did leave; they had no choice. But there are more that want the money they feel they were cheated out of by both my son’s strange evasion of the curse and Vladimir’s death. They are waiting for the spell that keeps the curse from killing him to fade.”
“Why not simply kill them?”
“Because otherwise they will kill my daughter,” Montaine said hoarsely. “If their lives even once appear to be threatened, they will finish the curse they have begun with her. I risk her life even by coming here with my problem.”
Trey shook his head, overwhelmed by the explanations. “So your son is not dead because a spell kept the curse from killing him. He has been turned to stone, and the mercenaries wait for that spell to fade, that they might exact their revenge? And to keep you from doing away with them, they have placed a partial curse on your daughter? Why not simply kill you all now? It makes no sense that they would merely bide their time waiting for one man to die.”
Montaine sighed. “Because they cannot kill all of us while my son is bespelled. I told you that the protections cast were frozen with him. One of those protections dampens magic – the mercenaries are not magically strong enough to curse all of us, and they do not have enough numbers to use weapons. We are at an impasse. If we attack them, they kill my daughter. If they attack us, we will kill them before they can get free. So we wait for the spell to fade and free my son. The longer he remains as stone, the longer we have to live. When the spell fades, we are either doomed or saved, depending on what happens when he wakes.
For several minutes Trey was silent, mulling over all that he had been told. “One thing still does not make sense to me. Well, more than one but we will settle on just one question for the time being.”
“Ask all the questions you like,” Montaine insisted.
“Why not simply smash the stone?” he saw the others wince and shrugged defensively. “It is a legitimate question. Break the statue that Dunstan has become and he is effectively dead, freeing you all from the constraints of the unexpected spell.”
Montaine nodded, though he had grown paler. “We cannot reach him. I do not think, Sir Trey, that you fully understand just what has occurred with my son. They attacked him in his garden, where he is most relaxed. Someone amongst the mercenaries did their job very well, for they knew it to be the best place to attack him. Dunstan is always alone when he goes to his rose garden, and he never takes any of his magical items with him. In his garden, he is at his most vulnerable.”
He fell silent a moment. His voice was barely above a whisper when he resumed speaking. “The roses protected him. I don’t know how, but they took the killing force of the curse and did their best to soften the blow. And now they have grown up around him, succumbing to neither blade nor fire. Nothing gets through them. Whatever magic he fed to them, to make them grow all year long, did something to them. But…”
“But?” Trey asked.
“The roses are dying.” Montaine said. “Only a few, but every day another begins to lose its vivacity. Time is running out.”
Trey again shook his head, fingertips pressed lightly to his forehead as he thought. “So we must save your son without harming your daughter and keep? It seems quite the conundrum.”
“It would take a great deal of magic,” Topaz interjected.
“Then it would seem you are the key to this dilemma.” Trey frowned at Topaz.
“Nay,” the dragon replied. “I am average at best. Though Rowan taught me a great deal, I will never be of his caliber.” He slid his gold-brown eyes toward Montaine. “In fact, I do believe Rowan hailed from your lands.”
“He was a cousin of mine,” Montaine replied. “I wish that more of us were as strong as Rowan and my son.”
Topaz nodded. “I will not be the one going. My magic aside, my presence would arouse a great deal of suspicion. The King’s Advisor does not make visits lightly.”
Trey conceded the point. “Then what do you plan to do?” He eyed the dragon warily when Topaz beamed at him. “Not me.”
“What mad notion is this?” Trey demanded.
Topaz gave him a long, hard look. Trey fell silent.
Bran smothered a laugh at Trey’s dismay. “Trey, you had a great deal of practice during the past five years at dancing around magic and finding ways to fight it. How else did you manage to be the only one capable of coming so close to our borders? You have the best chance of finding a way to oust the mercenaries without them bringing the curse down upon Beatrice. If nothing else, you can at least find a way to buy us time until we can locate someone with magic strong enough to best that of the Bellewoods.”
“Indeed,” Trey said coolly. His gray eyes never left Topaz’s.
“Do you mind helping that much, Trey?” Bran looked at him unhappily.
“Never do I mind lending my assistance,” Trey protested. “Most especially for you, Bran.” He turned to Lord Montaine. “And certainly I owe you more than a few favors, for getting me out of scrapes in my…turbulent younger years.” And he would do a great deal more, for the chance to rescue Dunstan. It had been nearly six years since he had seen the younger man, but his guilty interest had not faded. When Montaine had arrived alone, Trey had stifled his disappointment and focused on his duties.
Montaine smiled briefly. “I hear you still get into them occasionally.”
“The young knights start them.” Trey defended himself. “I merely end them.” He rose to his feet. “If this meeting is at an end, allow me to escort you back to your chambers, Lord Montaine.”
“That would be most acceptable,” Montaine rose to his feet.
Trey looked to Bran, “When do we depart?”
“With the morning, if you are amenable. Before sunrise.”
“Most amenable.” Trey sketched a bow and led Lord Montaine from the room. They walked in silence for a few moments, nodding to acquaintances but not lingering to talk. “I am looking forward to seeing your home, Lord Bellewood.”
Montaine smiled. “Though I wish it was under happier circumstances, I do look forward to showing off my lands. Mayhap before the year it out, my son can show you his roses. They were…are his pride and joy.”
“If they are half so beautiful as he often claimed, I do not doubt their fame at all.” Trey had listened for hours while Dunstan spoke of his precious roses, though he had always felt the roses would fall far short of their caretaker.
Silence fell again, as they left the crowded halls behind and made their way through more deserted passages, lit by only a few scant torches. “You have calmed much over the years, my Lord of Mistdale.”
“Many beatings on the sparring grounds helped to knock much of the trouble out of me and some manners and discipline in.”
Montaine let out a hearty laugh, looking less weary than he had before. “I think it is perhaps more than that, but no doubt the beatings helped.”
Trey nodded in agreement. “Life this past year has been good.”
“Ah,” Montaine replied. “And here I thought perhaps someone at last had managed to find the heart still lost in the mists.” He winked.
Trey grimaced at the old joke – that when he had been found at the edge of a misty valley just beyond the castle, the knights had accidentally left his heart behind. He had not been a particularly likeable child. “I am afraid it is still quite lost, my Lord.”
“I see,” Montaine said, and for a moment Trey thought he sounded pleased. He dismissed the strange thought.
He bowed once more as Montaine bid him good night and vanished into his room, then turned and went back the way he had come. When he had almost reached the Grand Hall, he abruptly veered left and headed instead for the stables.
Enough for one night. He needed to get out.
His horse looked up before he had even entered the stable, always somehow knowing when Trey was coming. The stallion had been a gift, as battle horses often were, from the late king. Trey had named him Whisper, for the horse heard everything and rarely made a sound unless he intended it.
“None today,” he said softly as the horse inspected him for treats. “But I promise to bring you something tomorrow.” Whisper settled as he saddled the horse and led him from the stable.
He called a farewell to the guards as they opened the gate for him, and ran off into the dark. Free of the castle, he loosed Whisper’s reins and let the horse lead the way off into the night, winding through the fields until they came upon a small rise, pausing for a moment at the top.
The hill was sharper on the opposite side, spilling down into a valley that was always – no matter the weather or the time of year – filled with mist. Only the benevolence of the place had earned it a reputation for mysterious, rather than ominous. Trey had been found climbing the hill out of the mists when he was but a few summers old. He knew the Misty Dale better than he knew the castle, so often had he wandered it first alone, then with Whisper, to escape people that for many years he did not know how to get along with. And to remind him why he kept trying to get along with them.
It had been a jest one day, when a visiting nobleman had asked the name of the young squire causing so much ruckus, that a nearby knight had said, “That is Trey of the Misty Dale.” The name had stuck, and when at last he had been knighted, the king had indeed declared him the Knight of Mistdale.
Distantly he heard the castle bells chiming the eleventh hour, as Whisper reached the top of the hill once more and left the valley behind.
“Hale, Captain.” A guard waved to him from the top of the gate.
“Hale. How does the night find you?”
“Bored out of our minds,” a second knight said cheerfully. “Eleventh bell and all is well.”
Trey nodded as he passed through gates, which clattered and slammed shut behind him. “I hope you are properly appreciative of that.”
“Of course, of course. But honestly, Captain. All the revelers that were about this evening, and not even a drunkard to toss into a cell. Must not have been terribly grand a party. ‘Tis a strange night, Captain.”
“Indeed,” Trey said coolly. “See that you keep your guard up.”
“Never fear,” the first knight replied. “You in a temper is far worse than whatever might be out there.”
Trey grunted, keeping his laughter to himself. He dismounted as a small boy of about thirteen years came running toward him, a fierce frown marring his freckled face. “It would seem I have gone and offended you again, Victor.”
Victor sniffed, tossing his carrot-colored curls. “My Lord, how am I supposed to do as you say or learn anything if you are always running off and leaving me behind? It is hard to attend a man who is constantly vanishing.”
Trey ruffled his hair, laughing at Victor’s affronted look. “I am certain you will manage.” He handed over Whisper’s reins. “Here, take care of my horse. That should give you something to do, and soothe those ruffled feathers of yours.”
Victor eyed the massive stallion warily. “More likely he will attempt to bite my feathers off.”
Laughing harder, Trey left his squire and horse in the courtyard and headed for his bedchamber.
He was not surprised to see a figure sitting before his fire, dusky skin seeming to drink in the flickering flames. “I thought you might have more to say on the matter, Dragon.”
Topaz smiled. “I thought you might prefer I not elaborate on certain matters in front of Bran and Montaine.”
“I would prefer you not elaborate on certain matters in front of me!” Trey snapped. “But it seems I have little choice.”
“Denial will not make it go away.”
“It has worked rather well so far,” Trey replied, glaring resentfully at the dragon. He broke the gaze a moment later, sighing softly and staring into the fire. “Rowan taught you to be conniving and persistent, among other things. Come to the point of your visit Topaz, I am weary.”
“I think you can free Dunstan.”
Trey shook his head adamantly back and forth, flames and shadows mixing oddly in his pale hair. His grey eyes were dark shadows as he resumed glaring at Topaz. “I am no magician.”
“Only because you chose not to be.”
“Exactly. I chose not to be. I want no part of magic. I am happy as a knight.”
“You are scared of what you might be.”
Trey’s reply was a bitter laugh. “Do not insult me by saying ‘might,’ Dragon. You know better than anyone what I ‘might’ be. What I am.”
“And that is why I think you can free Dunstan.”
“I will not go down that path,” Trey said, but his voice was not as stony as it had been before.
Topaz seemed to sense the weakness. “Not even for Dunstan? For Montaine?”
“Damn you, Dragon.” Trey stormed across the room to his bed, discarding his cape and sitting down to remove his boots. “Why can you never leave well enough alone?”
“Because I would not be much of an Adviser if I did not do what was necessary to serve my king and country.” He smiled as Trey rolled his eyes. “That aside, it is no small matter that our northern-most border is besieged by mercenaries. And you are most fit to deal with that threat.”
“Because of the magic that I want no part of?”
“You have used it.” Topaz’s golden eyes were penetrating. “Perhaps no one else ever realized it, but I am fully aware of what you did during Vladimir’s sorry reign.”
Trey shrugged, “It was little enough.”
“You were able to get past his barrier, Trey. That is no small feat.”
“I could go no further than a couple of miles, and that only for a handful of hours. Enough to kill and steal from peasants and knights that did not understand why we acted as we did!” Trey surged to his feet, “I will do my duty, Dragon! Leave me in peace.”
Topaz sketched a short bow, “I did not mean to anger you, Trey.”
“Yes, you did.” Trey sighed. “I know my duty, Topaz, and I will fulfill it. But do not expect me to do it in good grace. And no matter what, my secret remains between us.”
Topaz smiled faintly, “I do not forget my promises, Child of the Mist. None will ever hear your secrets from me. Sleep well.”
“And you, Dragon.” Trey sighed softly as Topaz left. He dropped his good boots and tunic on the floor, falling into bed with his good breeches still on.
“You are throwing your clothes on the floor!” Victor shrieked in outrage as he entered the room.
Trey smiled into his pillow. “I guess Whisper did not bite off your feathers, after all. I left the clothes for you.”
Grumbling, Victor set about putting Trey’s room to rights.
“Have my things packed, Victor. I am going to be gone for quite some time.”
“The Lord of Bellewood requires my assistance. I do not think I will require my armor, as I will be going to the sea.” He looked up, “I will expect everything to be ready by third bell. Is that understood?”
“Yes, my lord!” Victor dashed off, perhaps the only squire to ever be eager about staying up all night to pack. He paused in the doorway, “Am I going with you, my lord?”
Trey pretended to deliberate, snickering to himself at the way Victor tried not to hop from one foot to the other. “Yes, I suppose you may.”
“Thank you, Sir Trey!” He slammed the door behind him, dashing off to see to all the preparations.
Laughter fading, Trey pulled his blankets up and closed his eyes, falling slowly into sleep.
The morning was cloudy and damp, chilly but with the promise of warmth later in the day. Trey’s breath misted as he mounted Whisper, clasping hands with Bran and casting Topaz a tolerant glare.
“Fare thee well, Trey. Best of fortune to you, come back safe and victorious.”
“I am hardly going off to wage war,” Trey smiled. “Though I admit things tend to take the path of violence around me. Keep safe while I am gone.” He turned to speak to his second in command. “Do not go soft on our soldiers.”
“Perish the thought, brother.” Morgan smiled and waved him off. “Cause lots of trouble for me.”
“Best of fortune to you, Lord Montaine.” Topaz bowed to the somber lord. “Victor, attempt to stay out of trouble.”
“My pardon, Lord Advisor, but do you not mean I should keep my Lord of Mistdale out of trouble?” he blinked, the picture of innocence.
Trey swatted him. “Just for that, you will prepare our meals the length of the journey.”
The assembled group laughed. Lord Montaine nodded to Topaz, “Thank you, Lord Topaz. Majesty. I owe you a great deal for this kindness you have granted me.”
“Nonsense,” Bran brushed his words aside. “With all I have heard, it is I who owes you a great deal more than can ever be repaid. Enough of this. Your journey is a long one, so you had best be off.”
Trey nodded, turning his horse and leading the way from the castle courtyard. The gates were raised as he and Montaine approached and once beyond them he increased the pace, rapidly taking them beyond sight of the castle.
They traveled in silence through the gray morning light.
“I have neglected to thank you, Lord Trey.” Montaine broke the silence.
“Nonsense,” Trey responded, turning to look at the man riding beside him. Sunlight was beginning to spill across the sky, lightening Montaine’s graying hair and making Trey’s almost silver. “It is my duty to assist you, and an honor.”
“It is only that you seemed displeased by it last night.”
Trey looked toward the far horizon. “I was displeased only because I feel the Lord Topaz has set me a task I am unfit to complete. I am no sage.” His lips tightened at his unhappy thoughts, but he said no more.
Montaine pursed his lips thoughtfully, “And yet when I first posed my problem, Topaz immediately suggested you. Surely he had reasons for such a staunch belief.”
“No doubt,” Trey agreed shortly. “But let us not dwell upon the Dragon’s motives.”
“As you say.”
Trey twisted in his saddle and looked at his squire, “We will stop an hour after sunrise, Victor. See that you have breakfast prepared shortly thereafter – and you do not eat until we and the horses are cared for. Is that clear?”
“Yes, my Lord. Perfectly.” Victor nodded enthusiastically.
Montaine chuckled softly, voice low as he conversed with Trey. “Your squire reminds me of you at that age – though much more agreeable and less inclined to a fight.”
“He has as much fussiness as I did anger,” Trey said, glancing back at his squire, who was torn between keeping a careful eye out for would-be dangers and falling asleep. “When I was reinstated as Captain, Bran felt it would be a good match.”
“I look forward to seeing the knight he will become. Under your tutelage, I am certain he will be a great one.”
“Only if he becomes as interested in swords as he is in fretting over my clothing,” Trey said ruefully. “Though he has skill aplenty as a bowman.”
Montaine laughed. “I do believe he is a good squire for you.”
“So I am frequently told.” Trey cast Montaine a pensive glance. “So tell me more of what has befallen your son. Surely there are details that you have neglected to relate.”
Montaine sobered. “Aye. The mercenaries didn’t appear and fall upon us all at once. They were clever, did it a piece at a time. My father was dead almost before I understood what was going on. They went after Dunstan before my father was even properly buried. Sometimes I wonder if Dunstan did not figure it all out before I did.”
“If he had, he would have said something.”
“Nay,” Montaine flashed a brief smile. “Not if he was intent on protecting us. He has a knightly sense of duty—I believe he got it from you.”
Trey was startled, “From me? I sincerely doubt that. I was not much of knight, the years I saw him.”
“You would be surprised,” Montaine murmured. “But enough of that—I believe he knew that he was next. And it is not hard to deduce that the best place to attack Dunstan is in his garden.” Montaine closed his eyes, as if trying not to see the bad memories he was dredging up. “A hundred times I asked him, begged him, commanded him to place wards and the like in his garden – but he was insistent upon its remaining ‘uncontaminated’. The only magic he used in that place was to make the roses all year long.”
He sighed, “I guess whatever he was thinking, it worked. The curse they tried to lay down did not work, as it should have. But I am not certain he expected things to occur as they did.”
“It is quite the puzzle I am being sent to solve,” Trey said with a grimace. “Why am I never given simple assignments?”
“That is an easy enough question to answer.” Montaine gave a genuine smile. “You would grow bored and start causing trouble again.”
Trey ignored him. He gazed into the distance and then slowly turned his head around to take in all their surroundings. The castle was well out of sight, only the smoke from the kitchen fires visible, thin threads of gray in the sky. He turned back to Montaine. “I assume my visit is purely a social one, so far as pretext goes? My presence will not cause you further trouble?”
“Nay,” Montaine said. “You are an old friend. They cannot forbid me visitors if they are to keep their motives secret. Simply take care in your investigations.”
“Of course,” Trey replied.
“Pardon, Lord Trey.” Victor drew up beside them, pointing to a spot some distance ahead. “That looks like an ideal location for breakfast.”
Trey nodded and reached out to ruffle Victor’s bright hair. He laughed at Victor’s affronted expression. “A most ideal location. Run ahead and secure it for us, Victor.”
“Yes, sir!” Victor urged his horse forward.
“If only you had been so eager to please at that age.”
Trey snorted. “Where would the fun have been in that?”
The sound of steel against steel rang out across the open field, followed immediately by a pained cry and the thud of a body thrown hard to the ground. Victor cursed softly and forced himself back up on his feet.
“Your hair needs a trim, boy.” Trey grinned, raising his sword again in preparation for attack. “If you could see properly, your defense might not be so sloppy.”
“Yes, sir.” Victor said obediently, raising his sword barely in time to block the hard, jarring swing of Trey’s sword. He managed to block several more before Trey once more slid under his defense and hit his side hard with the flat of his blade. Victor, stumbling back away from the blow, tripped over his own feet and once more hit the ground.
“Your feet, Victor.” Trey lowered his sword and held an arm out to help Victor up. “Do not become so occupied with your sword that you forget the rest of your body.”
“Yes, sir.” Victor nodded dejectedly and combed his tangled orange curls from his face. He brushed the dirt from his clothes as best he could, and then retrieved his sword.
Trey sheathed his own sword. “Fix us dinner, lad. And do not look so glum.” He winked. “I am certain Lord Montaine will find a suitably humiliating story about me with which to reassure you.”
“Aye,” Montaine replied. “It is simply a matter of telling the one about the horse or the pigs and the banquet.”
Victor’s gloomy face lit up. “Oh! I know the one about the pigs!”
Trey groaned and gripped his forehead, as if warding off a headache. “I forbid that story to ever be retold in my presence.” He sat before the fire Montaine had started, directly opposite him. “Nor are you relating the horse incident.”
“Incident?” Montaine threw his head back and laughed. “Trey, it was a trifle more than an incident. She wound up in the pond.”
“I made my most sincere apologies.” Trey glared at the fire. “And it was not my fault she would not leave me alone.”
Montaine eye’s sparkled. “Would it have been so awful, Trey? To be her Knight Errant?”
“Yes.” Trey started to say something more, then recalled to whom he was speaking. “It would never have worked. And I was naught but a fresh squire at the time. Hardly fitting for a Knight Errant.”
Victor, in the process of preparing a stew for their dinner, looked at them in confusion. “What is a Knight Errant?”
Trey rolled his eyes. Montaine smiled. “An outdated custom, these days. More outdated than I thought, if you have never even heard the term.” He frowned in disapproval at Trey. “Honestly, my Lord of Mistdale. What are you teaching your squire?”
“What he needs to know, rather than nonsense.”
Montaine clucked in disapproval. “Keep at that stew, lad. A Knight Errant is an old custom no longer used. It used to be that Princesses, certain ladies, and many Sages each had their very own knight. That knight’s sole purpose was to protect the person to whom they were sworn.”
“You mean like a bodyguard?” Victor asked.
“Yes,” Montaine said. “Except bodyguards are hired for a certain period of time. Knights Errant are sworn for life. They exist solely to protect that one person.”
Victor looked dazzled. “So why did they stop doing it?”
“Because.” Trey said sharply. “It was impractical. The best knights in the realm were forced to live for one person and one person only. Sometimes those people were worth it…but many were not and too many knights died or were forced to kill those that did not need killing. Over time they became more of a status symbol and less a matter of protection. Even with Vladimir, the world now is not so dangerous as it once was. Women and Sages no longer need such protection. If they do, there is an army to provide it.”
Montaine tsked softly and shook his head. “Not a romantic bone in your body, Trey.”
Trey’s voice was flat as he replied, “I am a soldier.” He looked at Victor. “Try not to let dinner burn while you are fancying yourself a knight off to rescue a fair princess.”
Victor flushed and went back to stirring. A moment later he looked up, mischief in his green eyes. “At least I would rescue her and not dump her in a pond.”
“Indeed.” Trey’s lip’s quirked though he attempted to remain stern. “Perhaps we should resume practice after we eat.”
“It-it really is black!” Victor gaped, awed, at the castle in the distance. “I have never seen such a thing.”
Trey and Montaine shared a look of amusement. Montaine beamed, proud of his home. “The Black Castle of Bellewood. We know not who built it, only that the stone is not native to this land.” He smiled at Trey, goading him. “Some say it was built by the Children of the Mist.”
“The Children of the Mist?” Victor looked at him, puzzled. “Do you mean the Children of the Moon?”
“Yes, lad.” Montaine threw his arm out to indicate his lands. “But here, they are more commonly known as the Children of the Mist.” He winked, “I will have my beloved Beatrice tell you our tale of the Lost Ones.”
“Yes, my lord.” Victor’s eyes snapped back to the castle. “It is beautiful.”
“Yes, it is. They say once the stone was as smooth as glass, positively dazzling in the sunlight.” He grinned, “They say it was even more amazing in the moonlight; a castle meant to either shine or vanish in the darkness.”
Victor was enraptured.
Trey gave an aggravated sigh and urged his horse forward, calling back to Montaine over his shoulder. “If you are finished filling my squire’s head with nonsense, I would like to make the castle before supper. Victor, now!”
“Yes, my lord.” Victor obeyed immediately and the three continued on toward the black castle.
“Lady Beatrice,” Trey accepted a pale, delicate hand and bowed low over it. “You are more beautiful than my memories told me. You have your mother’s smile.”
Beatrice smiled. “I see you have learned some pretty manners, my Lord of Mistdale.”
“Trey, please. I am not so reformed as to want to hear the sound of my title all the time.”
“Then you must continue to call me Bea, please.” Beatrice laughed, and Trey was happy to see that she still could. Like her father, it had almost seemed as though she had forgotten how. Truly she had grown into a beautiful woman, strawberry blonde curls neatly secured with gold netting, save for a few which insisted on freedom. Her blue-green eyes were dulled with strain, but there was a spark when she laughed. The pale skin and almost bony frame were, no doubt, a result of the curse that plagued her. Her dress was oddly out of fashion, the neck high rather than cut low enough to show the flesh above her breasts as was popular. “And may I say that you are every bit the handsome knight I always thought you would be, if you ever stopped being such a brat!”
Trey smiled, “I am still very much a brat, or so my friends tell me.”
“Then you are a very handsome brat. You must receive proposals every day.”
“Not as many as you, Bea.”
Victor was staring at Beatrice in awe, barely remembering not to let his mouth hang open.
Beatrice smiled at him. “Who is this handsome young man?”
“This is my squire, Victor from Hickory.”
Beatrice held out her hand and curtsied. Victor, too dazzled to move immediately, took her hand as if it were made of glass and bowed low. “M-my Lady.”
“An honor to make your acquaintance, Squire Victor. I am sure one day you will be the finest of knights.”
Trey snorted. “One day.”
Beatrice clucked. “Be nice. Under you, he does not have much of a choice.” Taking her father’s arm, she motioned them all inside. “Come and rest yourselves. I have ordered supper and it should be ready in an hour’s time.” She swatted Montaine’s arm. “You should have sent a messenger ahead to announce your arrival. I could have had dinner waiting for you.”
“There was no reason to put you to extra trouble, Dove.” Montaine smiled fondly at his daughter. “And we could use the hour to rest, else we might fall asleep in our soup.”
“You still should have sent word,” Beatrice chastised gently. “Your rooms are this way, Lord Trey. There is a small room just off yours, for Victor.” She smiled at the squire, who turned pink and looked away. “It is comfortable and warm. The nights here can get quite chilly, so do not hesitate to ask for extra blankets if you need them.”
Trey smothered a laugh, knowing from Victor’s face that the boy had just decided he did not require any blankets to survive the night. “Thank you, Bea.” He bowed as they stopped in front of the indicated room. “I promise we will tell you everything about the capital at dinner.”
“Yes, you will.” Bea said.
Montaine looked at his daughter, “In return, Bea, I promised the young lad here that you would tell him all our stories about the Lost Ones.”
“Oh!” Beatrice clapped her hands together. “Of course!” She beamed at Victor, who looked as though he had been given a rare and precious gift. “Those were my favorite stories growing up.” Her smiled abruptly fell, “Dunstan always told them best…” She attempted to shake off her sudden gloom. “But I am not so bad in his place.” She nodded. “Rest, change, and we shall see you at dinner.”
“Who is Dunstan, my Lord?” Victor asked once the door closed behind him. “She looked so sad…”
Trey sighed, “Dunstan is her brother, younger by two years…he has gone missing.” He gave Victor a warning look. “You are not to say anything about it, is that clear? No matter what, do not discuss him.”
“Y-yes, my Lord.” Victor nodded and set about opening the trunks they had brought with them, setting out a fresh set of clothing for Trey before digging out his own. “Need you help changing, my lord?”
“No.” Trey moved away from the window he had been staring out of, letting the fine tapestry depicting a rose garden fall back across it. Mechanically he went about cleaning up and donning the fine, long, dark blue-gray tunic and black underclothes that Victor had set out for him.
“Would you like your sword, my Lord?”
“Just my daggers.” Trey firmly grasped Victor’s shoulder, urging the boy to stand still and attend him. “Listen to me, Victor. My purpose here is more than I have said. There are people here who intend Montaine and his family harm. So be silent, be observant and do as I tell you – no matter what I say. Do you understand me?”
Victor’s eyes had gone wide with surprise, but they narrowed in seriousness as he listened. He nodded, “Yes, my Lord. I am yours to command.”
“Good. Then fetch three of my daggers and see that you wear the other two.”
“Yes, sir!” Victor scrambled to obey.
Trey sat down to pull on his good boots, rich black leather polished to a high shine. Though he had the soft shoes more appropriate for dinners and balls, he loathed them. And given the nature of his visit, good boots were preferable to slick silk.
Had they been in a crowded room rather than a private dinner, he still would have known the mercenaries on sight. One was skinny, his build reminding Trey greatly of the wiry Gerald. His dark brown hair was shorn close to his head. His companion was of a slightly larger build, head shaved and sporting the ear jewels popular amongst inhabitants of the coast. Though they looked every inch the lazy nobles in their silks and satins and fine jewels, there was a menacing shadow to their demeanor that set them glaringly apart from the others in the room. These, then, were the leaders of the handful of rough soldiers he had seen skulking amongst Montaine’s knights.
It took Trey only a glance to discern that the bald one was the Sage – and quite a strong one.
“So you are the famed Misty Knight of the North,” the skinny one said by way of greeting. “Not a very flattering name, is it? Either you are as weak as the mist, or you are a monster.”
Trey narrowed his eyes, his ire instantly aroused. “You seem to have forgotten your manners, stranger. As well as your intelligence. Or is it typical in your world to greet monsters with rudeness?”
“I was merely trying to be playful, Lord Captain,” the skinny would-be noble replied easily. “It is rare that Lord Montaine has so infamous a guest.”
“Indeed,” Trey said coolly.
“Come now, my lords.” Montaine frowned at all of them. “Trey, my friends share a unique sense of humor but they mean no harm.” He looked at the mercenaries, “And I will thank you gentleman to treat my old friend with respect.”
“Of course,” the bald man said lazily, watching Trey through hooded eyes. “I am Frederick of Connoughton. My friend is Brandon of Farshire. You are Lord Trey of Mistdale, Knight Captain of the North.”
Trey nodded stiffly and finally took his seat. He could hear Victor shifting nervously behind him and quietly motioned the boy to stillness. “Mulled wine, if you please Victor.”
“Yes, my lord.” Victor dashed away to fetch the requested drink.
“So, how come you to know my Lord Bellewood?” Trey asked pleasantly.
“We were passing through and begged permission to rest here. I am afraid we are overstaying our welcome for love of the place.”
“Nonsense,” Montaine admonished. “I enjoy the company. Even with Beatrice I grow lonely.”
Trey stifled the urge to reach across the table and swiftly dispatch the two mercenaries; it would not be difficult.
Movement caught his attention, and all four men stood as Beatrice entered the room. Once more she was dressed in an out-of-fashion dress, this one dark blue and embroidered with silver roses. Her hair was bound in fine, silver netting. Her nervousness as she stared at the two mercenaries was apparent only because Trey watched for it.
He also took note of the way she touched her chest, right below her collarbone. He kept his satisfied smile to himself, pleased to have already answered one of his own questions. “Enchanting, Lady Beatrice. Your presence adds much to an already splendid meal.”
“Thank you, Lord Trey.” Beatrice took the seat opposite her father, where her mother would sit were she alive.
The meal was a fine dance between pleasantries, stories and challenges between Trey and the mercenaries. Try though they did to discern an ulterior motive in his presence, they learned only that he was simply as he claimed – an old friend and guest.
Beatrice helped to keep the atmosphere light, insisting on story after story of the palace she had not visited in more than six years. Her father at last called a halt as dessert was brought out. “Dove, there is still a young man here waiting anxiously for a promised story.”
“Of course,” Beatrice bowed her head, lips twitching. “I am being greedy.” She smiled at Victor, standing quietly at attention just behind Trey’s seat. “Do you suppose your lord would grant you permission to sit and enjoy a few sweets while I tell your story?”
Trey motioned for Victor to sit. “Of course. You have done well tonight, Victor.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Victor said quietly, unusually shy and quiet. He gingerly took a seat, as if scared someone would bark at him to get up.
Beatrice waited until he had overcome his nervousness to enjoy the sweetmeats set in front of him. “Do you know the meaning of the name Bellewood, Victor?”
“No, my Lady. Some sort of forest, yes?”
“Yes,” Beatrice nodded in approval. “‘Belle’,” she spelled it for him. “Is an old word, from a language that we no longer use. As you already know, none of our ancestors are native to this land. Bellewood is our family name, from a time and place long forgotten. Our ancestors gave it to this castle to make it ours and drive out the spirits of those who dwelt here before us.”
“You mean the Children of the Moon?”
“Precisely,” Beatrice said. “The Children, it is said, could control their world with naught but a thought. Their magic was incredible, powerful – and wholly new to the invaders that came to steal their land. It seduced us, this wonderful thing called magic, and instead of slaughtering the inhabitants we in turn seduced them, coerced them, made them part of us.”
“At least until we realized our magic would never be as powerful, that all we could do was create complicated spells that were, at best, pale imitations of what the Children could do.”
Brandon rolled his eyes and looked bored. “Why must you always discuss the wretched faeries?”
“They are not faeries,” Trey said coldly. “Faeries are myth. The Children of the Moon very much existed, though of course they were not as glamorous or mysterious as legend has made them out to be.”
“But why do you call them such an idiotic name?” Frederick asked.
Beatrice bowed her head politely, “I will explain. They are called the Children of the Moon because their magic had but one weakness. It waxed and waned with the moon. When the moon was full, their magic was beyond compare. When there was no moon? They were little better than us – though still quite capable of magic.”
She turned back to Victor, smiling. “When at last our ancestors began to do away with the Children, they drove them apart, separated them into small packs and then killed them. There is strength in numbers, and our ancestors made certain those numbers were few – and on a night when there was no moon. The last of them were driven into this castle, their last stronghold. It was our family which was charged with killing them, but there was one problem which they could not overcome.”
“What was that?” Victor asked, sweetmeats forgotten on his plate.
“The mist,” Beatrice said simply. “This castle was once called the Phantom Castle, because of the black stones from which it was built, and the mist that came off the ocean every night. Once the sun went down and the fog rolled in, the castle was all but impossible to see. And attacking by daylight was useless, because the Children attacked at night, when they were strongest. Daylight was for resting.” She paused to take a sip of wine, looking pensive. “But one night the fog did not roll in, for whatever reason, and there was no moon. The Bellewood army wasted no time, and stormed the castle. But when they entered it, no one was there.”
Montaine spoke up as his daughter fell silent, “Some say that many of the Children snuck away under cover of night and mist, and that they live among us still. Others suggest they escaped to the sea in search of a new home.”
“It is believed,” Beatrice resumed her story, “that if they ever vanish completely, they will take the magic with them. Some believed, back then, that we had magic only because they allowed us to have it. And if we killed all of them, magic would cease to exist.”
Trey rolled his eyes, “Which was absurd, because magic is not unique to the North.”
“Yes. I think that bit of the legend was mostly to assuage guilt over killing them.” Beatrice conceded the point with a nod. “Dunstan always said that magic was a gift, for better or worse.” She smiled at Victor, “I always thought it was a battle that finished off the Children of the Mist, but my grandfather said the Bellewoods and the Children simply became one. That the reason members of our family are so magically strong is that we carry the blood of the Children in us. That we are their descendants. Dunstan disagreed. They used to love to argue over the matter.”
Victor beamed, “Thank you for the story. I think it sad, but also pretty.”
Beatrice smiled at him and quietly urged him to finish eating.
“There is another bit of the legend you might like to know, Victor–”
Trey glared at Montaine, “Will you stop filling his head with foolish tales? I have been doing my best to see he does not learn them!”
Montaine blithely ignored him. “The Knights Errant came into being not long after all that, when normal people still feared magic and worried that amongst the Sages, who were closely watched by the King, Children bent on revenge might be hiding. Knights Errant were originally used to protect Sages from those that feared them. In fact, the name came about largely as a jest – errant fools who gave up everything to protect someone who quite feasibly could have been an enemy.”
“I grow weary of these foolish tales,” Brandon groused.
Trey nodded, “The hour is late; it is long past time I sought my bed. My Lady Beatrice, thank you for the tale. Though I think it foolish, I appreciate your making the effort.”
“My pleasure, Trey.” Beatrice stifled a yawn.
Trey motioned to Victor, “Escort her ladyship to her chambers and then fetch her something hot to drink. Report to me when she no longer requires your assistance.”
“Yes, my lord!” Victor all but jumped out of his seat and ran to Beatrice’s side, escorting her from the room with all the manners he had drilled into himself.
Trey stood, as did Montaine. “Thank you, my Lord Montaine, for the magnificent dinner.”
“I appreciate your traveling so far to visit me. Shall I escort you to your room?”
“No, but thank you.” Trey spared a nod for the two men across from him. “Sleep well, my lords. May your nights be dreamless.”
“And you, Captain.”
Another nod, and Trey departed. Alone in the hallway, he pressed a hand to his forehead, allowing some of his trembling to make itself apparent.
It was harder than he had thought it would be, dwelling in the Black Castle. The voices always present in the mist were stronger, louder, within the castle.
He never should have come…but the memory of dark beauty and eyes that burned when they spoke of magic would not retreat from his mind’s eye. Curse the Dragon anyway, for forcing this upon him. Trey all but snarled in frustration as he reached his room, ripping away the tapestry to let in some fresh air.
The door opened and closed a few minutes later, and he almost smiled as Victor immediately set to squawking. “What are you doing? Trying to make yourself sick?”
Trey laughed. “If you are cold, Victor, why not go ask your princess for an extra blanket?”
Victor turned six shades of red, all of them clashing horribly with his orange hair. Muttering curses beneath his breath, Victor retrieved the tapestry Trey had thrown aside and covered the window. “Do you require anything else, my lord?”
“Go to bed, Victor. We have many long days ahead of us.”
Victor was silent for a moment. “…I did not like those two men, my lord. They had mean eyes.”
“Most observant,” Trey said, nodding his approval. “They are the ones we must watch out for. Now say no more of it, for you never know who is listening. Go to sleep and do not leave your room until sunrise. Is that understood?”
“Yes, my lord.” Victor took the strange order in stride, and vanished into his own room.
Trey stripped out of his fine clothes and retrieved an older set from his trunk. The short tunic, breeches and undershirt were all soft and faded with wear and tear, the dark gray fabric patched in several places. His boots were just as old, but long his favorite pair. They were high, coming just up to his thighs, soft and pliant, and required lacing. Dressed, he stretched out on his bed and listened to the thrumming of old magic all around him. The castle was soaked in it, the legacy of a people who had vanished centuries ago.
Guilt was part of the reason he had never attempted to court Dunstan. But fear had also kept him silent, if he forced himself to be honest. He’d spent his whole life hiding, for fear of the old myths that labeled him an enemy. For fear that someday he would succumb, as his mother had, to the mist.
Turning onto his side, Trey let his eyes slide shut. He waited, unmoving, as the bells chimed through the hours. When they rang once and then fell silent, he opened his eyes and slid soundlessly from his bed.
Outside, a half-moon shone bright in a clear sky. But no one within the castle could see it, for a heavy blanket of mist had settled around the castle and across the fields surrounding it. Trey crept from his room, through the hallways and down into the main courtyard.
Only the night guards were about, high on the castle wall and unable to see through the mist. Even the torchlights, which Trey had noted before, were invisible – that or the mist had put them out.
He was little more than a shadow as he made his way through the mist, moving as easily as if he had lived in the castle his entire life. Reaching the wall on the eastern side of the castle, he followed it until he came upon an old wooden door.
Barely had he touched it when the door creaked slowly open. Trey slipped through it and pulled the door shut behind him, making his way along a footpath he could sense but not see, winding his way until the path at last ended in a small clearing in the small wood that lined the eastern side of the castle.
The clearing was a nasty tangle of thorns, the faintest shreds of moonlight making visible a vast number of roses. By day they would be a rainbow of colors; red, violet, orange, yellow and pink. In the moonlight and mist, however, they were mere shadows of their normal vibrancy.
What once had been a rose garden was now little more than a mess of thorns and roses, surrounded by dead grasses and dying trees. The rose bushes climbed high, using one another as support, some extending so high they clung to the tree branches above them.
There was no obvious way inside; the roses guarded well the statue within what had once been a beautiful garden. The mist seemed to curl and curve around Trey, stretching past to delve into the tangled fortress before him.
Trey reached out to touch the nearest rose, the petals limp and starting to shrivel at the ends. It almost seemed to twitch beneath his fingertips, reaching toward Trey’s calloused touch, absorbing the mist that brushed it.
Around the flower, the tangled rose bushes shuddered and began slowly to move. Several minutes later, a narrow opening appeared in the tangle. Trey gave the pale, pale rose he had touched another caress as he passed, a silent thanks, and vanished through the gap that closed behind him.
Beyond the wall, within the garden proper, it looked as though the world had died.
Once the roses must have flowered everywhere in the garden – he could see the remains of the wooden slats for climbing roses, a dried up fountain and marble bench, traces of where the roses must have been so carefully and lovingly arranged. But now there was no trace of even a weed; all life had given itself over to sustaining the roses and the man they guarded.
Trey’s soft boots crunched on dead grass as he approached the statue in the middle of the garden.
The statue was beautiful. It appeared to be made from gray marble, and had Trey not known the reality of it, he would have said it had been carved with great love and care.
Dunstan was even more breathtaking than Trey had remembered. Even turned into soft gray stone, he was beautiful. He was dressed in the old-fashioned robes his grandfather had been fond of, the bottom and ends of the wide sleeves meticulously embroidered with an intricate knotted design – such a style had not been used in decades. Modern robes were heavier and tended to hang loose rather than cling as the older ones. His hood partially obscured his face, only one well-sculpted cheek and a stone-cool eye bared to Trey’s eyes. Several soft-looking curls had escaped the confines of the hood, brushing Dunstan’s shoulder. It looked as if he’d been waiting for someone, and some sound or movement had turned his head.
His half-hidden face was stunning; a high cheekbone and small nose, full lips slightly parted and curved in a soft smile, as if the same person who had turned his head had interrupted some happy thought. Trey thought it strange, that Dunstan had been struck down while smiling. Surely he must have consumed by worry and fear. Yet he smiled.
Unthinkingly, Trey reached out to stroke the bared stone cheek. It was warm, his sensitive hands feeling the faintest thrumming of life beneath the stone. He let out a sigh of relief, not willing to admit he had been worried until his fears were eased.
Dunstan yet lived, though he would not live too much longer. It was a matter of days, not weeks as Montaine believed, before the roses grew unable to sustain and protect Dunstan. He caressed the stone cheek once more, hand lingering before he forced himself back to work.
His eyes flashed silver, and the mist around him began to shimmer. The shimmer spread out, like a ripple in a pond, absorbed where it lapped against the thorns. The wall shivered, shook, and then seemed to strengthen.
Shuddering, uncomfortable with his powers but determined to save Dunstan, Trey’s eyes flashed once more. He closed them, then opened them again. Satisfied that he had bought himself some extra time, he reached out once more to touch the statue, caressing its cheek, thumb brushing across stone lips.
Eventually he forced himself to turn away, leaving the garden until he could return to free the trapped sage.
But to do that, and all else that must first be accomplished, he would need his magic at its strongest – when the moon was full.
“I do not like those two men at all, my lord.” Victor rubbed at his cheek, which was covered in a livid black and purple bruise. “They fight dirty.”
Trey laughed softly and motioned his squire closer, “Perhaps you should have held your tongue, lad.” He pushed Victor’s hands away and held him still while he examined the bruise.
“They were slandering my Lady!” Victor said indignantly.
Laughing harder, Trey pointed toward a leather satchel on the floor near his wardrobe. “Fetch my bag, Brave Squire.”
Muttering, Victor did as he bid.
Rifling through it for a moment, Trey at last pulled out a small, glass container. Uncapping it, he motioned Victor to stand close to him again. “Hold still,” he said quietly. Dipping his fingers into a soft, pale yellow cream, he spread it gingerly over the large bruise and carefully rubbed it in. Victor winced at the cold sting but did not move. “There.” Trey recapped the container. “Barring your mouth getting you into further trouble, that should speed the healing. You will be back to your usual handsome, finicky self in no time at all.”
“I am not finicky. It is not my fault if you are messy.”
“And what would you do with your time if I did not give you things to clean and a room to tidy?”
Victor rolled his eyes. “Spend more time either practicing or getting my feathers bitten off by your demon horse.”
“Whisper is not a demon.”
“Well not to you, oh Lord of the Demon.”
Trey gave him a reproving glance, though his eyes sparkled with amusement. “Now, Victor. This is why the Lord of Farshire hit you.”
Victor glowered, not needing the reminder. “I suppose I should be grateful he did not do more.”
“I am surprised he did not. Perhaps he is not as foolish as I thought.” He returned the container to its place, coming up this time with a vial the size of his smallest finger. “But on to business. Know you what this is?”
Victor nodded, expression turning puzzled. “What…?”
Trey raised a finger to his lips, then handed the tiny glass vial to his squire. “We are going to rescue the Lady Beatrice tonight, you and I.”
“Rescue her? From what?”
“You will see.” Trey curled Victor’s fingers around the vial. “Brandon and Frederick have grown used to your visiting her in the evenings for stories and mulled wine. So they will not think twice of it tonight. Slip that into her wine and make sure she is comfortable. Leave her room, then double back and stay there until I arrive.”
Horribly confused and nervous, Victor nevertheless obeyed. He slipped the vial into a hidden pocket of his tunic.
“Do you have the two daggers, still?”
“Yes, my lord.” Victor looked offended that Trey had to ask.
“Good.” Trey stood to leave the room. “Then keep a low profile the rest of the day. Go practice your drills in the yard – if they appear beat a hasty retreat. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Trey tousled his hair, tugged affectionately at one stray curl, then strode from the room.
He made his way along the castle wall, breathing deeply of the salty air, smelling a storm on the wind. Several minutes later, Beatrice joined him, her long dark red dress and light cloak whipping in the wind. “My Lady, you look as lovely as ever.”
Beatrice smiled, despite the exhaustion and pain that were ever present in her face and eyes. She brushed a stray curl from her cheek. “My Lord, you are as stunning as ever. Thank you for agreeing to meet me here. I wish we did not have to come all the way out here to converse.” She moved to stand beside him, taking his arm and gazing out at the ocean. “It is beautiful, is it not? The water. Yet I am sick of the sight of it. Is that wrong?” She turned to look at him, tears in her eyes. “I feel so guilty, so awful, to want to leave when my brother’s life is hanging by a thread.”
“Bea…you have every right – as much right as he – to long for freedom. You are both trapped here. The only difference is that you are aware of it every moment of every day. Your brother, at least, is more or less asleep.” Trey told the lie with ease, knowing it would bring her some comfort to think that her brother was not suffering. “You have been stronger than anyone I have ever met. Have faith, soon it will all be over.”
Beatrice nodded, gathering herself together. She opened her eyes. “Thank you, Trey. Just having you here has done much to soothe us. Father is finally sleeping at night, and even I am finding it easier to rest.”
“That is no doubt because Victor tires you with his endless need for those silly stories.”
“You only think they are silly because you do not want to admit you like them,” Beatrice tugged playfully at his arm. “I saw it in you even we were children, Trey. You thrive on being a knight, on protecting people. Tell me you do not wish to be a Knight Errant, declaring your love and loyalty to some poor Sage in need of protection.”
Trey snorted, “I think not.”
Beatrice laughed softly for a moment, the sound of it carried away all too soon by the wind as she once more turned somber. “I am surprised you are alone, after all these years. I thought you would have settled down by now with one beauty or another.” She looked at him, “You treat Victor so kindly, despite your attempts to be strict. More like a brother or son than a squire. It seems strange that you do not have a companion.” She looked back out at the sea.
Trey started to respond with a flippant remark, but instead shrugged. His eyes flitted for the briefest moment to the rose garden; Beatrice did not notice. “I have had offers, from fathers eager to settle their daughters. Others. But I prefer to be alone, rather than settle for someone when my heart was long ago lost to one I could not have.”
“Could not have?” Beatrice’s brows went up. “Who in the world could you not have? You were adored by the late king and, from what I hear, are fast friends with the new king. You are a Knight Captain known throughout the country and even by some of our neighbors. Who in the world could you not have?” She made him turn to look at her and poked him in the chest. “Every summer and winter we came to visit, and every summer and winter I had to watch two things. One was more people than I could stand chasing after you – and you always oblivious.”
“No one was chasing after me,” Trey protested. “Unless it was to beat me senseless for causing some offense.”
“Men,” Beatrice said in exasperation.
“What was the second?”
Beatrice shifted her gaze to the thorny tangle off in the distance, eyes dim. “I visit him every morning, no matter what. I am no fool. My father says we have plenty of time.” She turned her tired gaze to Trey. “But the roses are nearly dead, and the thorns begin to die. No life exists anywhere in or near that garden. We have only days, do we not?”
“Do not lie to me!”
“Days only,” he conceded reluctantly. “But I tell you there is nothing to fear.”
“You cannot know that,” Beatrice said tiredly. “You have not been waiting five years for this nightmare to end – one way or the other.”
“If I had known, I would have come sooner.”
Beatrice’s face softened. “I know. I try to be angry that no one came, but the sad truth is that we did our best to ensure no one did. Even now we would have borne our fate in silence, except that in the end we could not bear to just quietly give up.” She squared her shoulders and looked him in the face. “But he may not come back, and that is why I tell you what I am about to say. I do not want him to die, without your ever knowing.” She faltered, “He asked me to tell you before he left that night. I knew he was up to something but did nothing!” Beatrice started to cry. “But it was what he wanted – what kind of sister am I? To let my little brother suffer so much?”
“Brothers want nothing more than for their sisters to be safe,” Trey said softly, embracing her. “You did what he wanted, so do not worry about it.”
Beatrice pulled away. “And now I am going to fulfill his one request.”
“To tell you that he loved you.”
Trey drew a sharp breath. “That is impossible.”
“Hardly,” Beatrice said tartly. “Or did you never notice the way he shadowed you? Probably not, you were so preoccupied with causing trouble or attempting to escape punishment.” She gave a half smile at some memory. “It was the strangest thing, the summer he was ten. You had disappeared as you often did, and he ran off to find you. When he came back…he was a different person. Did you know that until that summer, he was only vaguely interested in magic? Whatever happened that day, he was obsessed with becoming a great Sage. Magic became his passion, his life. Only the roses and you could break him away from his studies.”
Trey’s brow furrowed. “What in the world…?”
Beatrice shook her head, “I know not. He said only that he had gotten lost in that valley, the one always filled with mist.”
Trey was silent, unable to wrap his mind around what Beatrice had just told him. All that time…it was incomprehensible. “I will save your brother,” he said at last. “And thank you for telling me. I wish I had known sooner.”
“What would you have done?” Beatrice asked.
“I guess we will see when I free him,” Trey lifted her hand and kissed it softly. “When this is all over, I’ve a friend I would like you to meet. Morgan is much like Victor, but older and wiser.”
Beatrice looked at him suspiciously. “Are you attempting to foist a husband upon me? In the midst of this wretched mess?”
“It is the least I can do,” Trey said with a soft smile. “As you have just given me what I thought I could not have.”
It was Beatrice’s turn to gasp and stare in shock, as Trey turned and began to head back toward the castle and his room. Then she laughed, loudly and in pure delight – the first truly happy sound Trey had heard since his arrival. He smothered a smile, determined to finish things once and for all.
The first order of business was the matter of Beatrice’s curse. Such a curse could not be destroyed – it could only be completed or endured until it was completed.
Or it could be transferred.
But transferring was painful and tricky – if Frederick sensed his magic was being tampered with, Beatrice could die.
Trey crept soundlessly from his room, making use of the servants’ stairs and passages to reach Beatrice’s room. Outside, the mist blanketed everything; even the sound of the bell was muffled as it chimed the first hour after midnight. He held his sheathed sword tight against his side so that it did not make a sound as he walked.
He knocked softly on the door of Beatrice’s room, whispering to his squire, whom he knew was just on the other side of it. Victor opened the door a crack, then pulled it wide when he saw it was indeed his lord. “Sir Trey…”
“Is she all right?”
Victor worried his bottom lip and nodded. “She is sleeping like the dead, but still breathing.”
“Good lad,” Trey nodded and locked the door behind him.
“What-what exactly are we doing, my lord?”
Trey did not reply, focused on the task before him. He approached the bed, where Beatrice did indeed sleep like the dead. Slowly, carefully, he undid the top buttons of her sleeping gown. Baring the flesh between throat and breast, Trey hissed as he finally saw the mark of the curse. A fleur-de-lis, dark purple and hot to the touch.
“What is that?” Victor asked softly. The mark looked like some sort of lurid bruise, painful just to look at. He unconsciously touched the faded bruise on his own face, somehow sensing that he was the lucky one.
“Shh,” Trey said. He held his hand relaxed just slightly above the mark, closing his eyes a moment and drawing a deep breath in preparation. Never had he done such thing, but instinctively he knew what to do and how. Opening his eyes, he focused his thoughts exclusively on transferring the curse.
He did not hear Victor’s gasp from the opposite side of the bed, or the way his squire froze in shock for a moment, before backing away from the silver haze that had formed around Trey, shimmering much like moonlight – much like Trey’s eyes.
Crying out in pain, Trey stumbled back and fell to the floor. He clutched his chest, breathing in short, ragged bursts. His chest burned and ached, his entire body felt heavier, more tired. That Beatrice had endured such a burden for years held him in awe; when all was well again he would do all he could to ensure she found her own happy ending.
“Lord Trey, are you all right?” Victor hesitantly touched his shoulder, kneeling beside him, face full of worry.
“I am fine, Victor.” Trey removed his hand and held it firmly for a second in comfort. “I was merely overwhelmed for a moment.”
“What in the King’s name were you doing?”
“Freeing her,” Trey said simply. “And now I am charging you with a most important task.”
Victor’s expression turned grave and he nodded.
“I am off to take care of the mercenaries and rescue Lord Dunstan – ” Trey cut Victor off before he could ask the obvious questions. “Later, I will explain it all to you. For now, I want you to remain here and watch over Lady Beatrice. She will not wake before late morning and while she is under the influence of the potion, she is completely defenseless. Should my plans go awry, she will need protection.”
Though Victor was clearly dying to ask several questions, he had long ago learned to obey first and ask questions later. Trey wished more of his knights had taken to the lesson as Victor had – they might still be alive.
“Good lad. When she wakes, it will be safe to come and find me.” Trey departed without a backward glance.
He did not bother to move quietly as he made his way out of the castle and toward the door to the rose garden. His boots scuffed against stone and grass, the leather of his sword belt creaking, metal jangling. The mist seemed to curl around him, petting and stroking, shimmering every so slightly when it touched him.
The voices echoed in his head, whisperings in the black stone and the silver mist. Voices of those that had chosen to give themselves over to the mist rather than try to live amongst the humans, mere shadows now that no one could hear.
Trey did not want that fate, did not want to become a voice that no one could hear. He did not want to lose himself in the mist, become part of it.
Yet he did not feel complete when it was not present.
He forced his thoughts away as human voices became audible and he could make out shadows by the wooden door.
“Well, well. What have we here?” Brandon said as Trey stepped into view. “Are you having trouble sleeping? Or are you off to visit the statue yet again?”
Trey smirked, “Have you been following me all along?”
“No, we merely guessed.” Frederick spoke almost lazily from where he leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest. “It is not as though we ever really thought you were simply Montaine’s guest. None of us is that foolish.”
“Perhaps not that foolish,” Trey sneered. “But you are still fools.”
“You would do well to watch your words,” Brandon said. “If you are here to rescue the fair damsel and her unfortunate family, you would do well to keep in mind that fair damsel dies at the snap of my fingers.”
Trey grinned in challenge. “By all means, good sir, snap your fingers.”
Brandon narrowed his eyes.
“Oh, but you are unable. Because the moment you do, nothing will keep me from killing you. We appear to be at a stalemate…” Trey sneered at them, and steel hissed against leather as he drew his sword. Around them the mist thickened to a dense fog. The mercenaries lost sight of Trey as he drew back into the folds of the mist.
Brandon drew his sword, cursing softly. “Frederick, kill her. We shall simply–” his words dissolved into a choking sound, then into silence as he was shoved roughly forward – off of Trey’s blade.
Frederick chuckled, whispering the words of a spell that offered him some light in the thick grey mist. “I always heard you were noble, Knight Captain. But is it not the way of cowards to stab a man in the back? And to hide in the mist?”
Cold steel pressed Frederick’s throat, the tip of a dagger nicking his skin. Trey spoke softly in his ear, “Is it not the way of cowards to curse an old man, an untried Sage and a defenseless woman? Real men do not slink around in the dark and cast forbidden spells to avoid dirtying their hands.”
“What are you doing,” Frederick taunted. “If not slinking around in the dark?”
Trey laughed, low and cold. “I am no man.” The dagger slid from Frederick’s throat, leaving a thin line of blood. “Cast your curse, cowardly Sage.”
“Do you want the woman to die?” Frederick shivered, despite himself. He spun around, but the strange knight had already vanished back into the mist.
Another of those strange, taunting laughs. “If you cancel the curse, I will let you live.”
“You already killed Brandon.” Frederick tried not to think about how easily his compatriot had fallen. He had seen his co-captain go against odds that most would deem impossible – yet he had just been killed as though he were an untried private slain by a seasoned soldier.
As if he were nothing.
“So why should I believe you? You will kill me the moment I free her.”
“Taking lives is not something I enjoy, though circumstance has made me quite proficient at it.” Trey appeared in front of him. “Set her free and I will return the favor.”
Frederick drew his long dagger. “Why did you not extend Brandon such mercy?”
Trey vanished again into the mist. “Because he had nothing I wanted, and he dared to harm those under my protection.”
Gripping his dagger, Frederick spun in a circle trying to locate the knight. “Perhaps if you ceased playing these foolish games I might consider your request.” He licked his dry lips, drawing together in his mind the words of a spell.
He spoke them as Trey appeared again before him – and went as pale as the mist around them when the spell crumbled as though it had never been spoken.
Trey looked only mildly annoyed as he stepped closer, mist rippling around him like fabric. The mist flashed silver as Trey stabbed him, and Frederick collapsed to the damp ground beside his fallen comrade.
Beside them Trey fell to his knees, clutching at his chest, eyes closed tight in pain. He screamed; the sound of it swallowed by the mist that shimmered and then flashed bright around him.
Shakily, he stood, a hand still pressed to his burning chest. “Remind me not to try that one again,” he whispered softly to himself. He likely would not survive it a second time. Around him the voices bound in stone and mist whispered their assurances. Trey ignored them and retrieved his sword. He cleaned and sheathed it, sparing the dead mercenaries not a single glance as he threw open the door and all but ran down the footpath to the garden.
The garden and all around it was dead. Perhaps the faintest thread of life remained in the trees, but it was not enough to sustain the spell that kept Dunstan safe in stone. The wall of thorns was falling apart and Trey easily made his way through it.
Inside, the statue had lost its timeless luster. The gray marble was fading, showing the age that it had never shown before.
If the original curse lingered, there was not much Trey could do to prevent it from finally taking hold of its victim. He approached the statue, feeling heat where before he had only felt the slightest bit of warmth. Stone turned pliant beneath his touch, gray softening into white skin and fine wool.
Dunstan fell forward as the spell finally died, his shuddering breaths warm against Trey’s neck. He was still for a moment, then his fingers gripped the fabric of Trey’s old tunic and slowly he lifted his head. Eyes so dark they appeared black gaped at Trey. “Am I free? Are they gone? Is my family safe?” And suddenly he seemed to realize who held him. “Lord Trey… ” He shuddered, closing his eyes against the bad memories that assaulted him. “Everything was so strange…like I was here and yet not…I only vaguely felt things. But…I…my last thought was of you…and then I dreamt you were near. It made things easier to bear.”
Trey let out a soft sigh of relief. “It would appear the curse has, at the last, failed completely. Welcome back, Dunstan.” He pushed the hood from Dunstan’s head, hand lingering a moment too long in his night-dark curls.
The smile Dunstan gave him, as he caught Trey’s hand and held it fast, was the same he had worn as a statue. “My family is safe?”
“They are safe and sound asleep.”
Dunstan shook his head. “You always did prefer solitude.”
“A necessity more than a preference.”
“Why a necessity?” Dunstan nuzzled into the hand that stroked his cheek.
Trey smiled faintly. “Though I know not how, I think you know.”
“You did not want anyone to know you are a Child of the Mist.”
“How?” Trey asked.
Dunstan’s dark eyes looked into Trey’s pale ones. “Because I followed you. At first it was nothing more than the workings of a child’s imagination. You looked, to me, like some lost Sorcerer in the mist. It was only later that I realized it was truth and not fancy. As I studied and learned and watched.”
“I did not know I had a second shadow,” Trey smiled.
“I worked hard to ensure you remained unaware.”
“Why?” Trey whispered. “All this time…we both…”
Dunstan laughed and shook his head. “I was scared. What had I to offer a Child of the Mist?”
“My thoughts were similar…” Trey shook his head, bewildered. Then he smiled slowly, voice soft. “Shall I tell you a secret of the Children of the Mist and Moon?”
Dunstan tilted his head into Trey’s hand, confused. “Of what secret do you speak?”
“Of when the Children vanished, never to be seen again. It was suspected that many disguised themselves as Sages.”
“Yes…” Dunstan said slowly.
Trey laughed. “They did not. For would that not be the first place to look? The Children hid where they were least expected, and where they too could be protected.”
Dunstan shook his head, not understanding.
“They became Knights, and lived to protect the Sages – who in turn hid the truth of their Knights Errant from the world, and kept them safe from those Children that had given themselves over to the Mist.” Trey pulled him closer, wrapping his free arm around Dunstan’s slender waist, and ducked his head to speak to Dunstan alone, his words not reaching the mist that shimmered around them. “I would be your Knight, if you would be my Sage.”
Dunstan’s arms reached up to twine around his neck, lips brushing whisper-soft over Trey’s cheek. “Yes, please. Yes!”
Trey turned his head and caught the lips that had brushed his cheek, tasting warmth and sweetness and the tang of magic. His fingers tangled in dark curls and soft fabric, drawing Dunstan as close as possible, until he knew nothing but the Sage he had always wanted, and the voices in the mist faded.