In the great hall of Castle Leiche, a healer carefully unwrapped the bandages that swathed the head and face of the man sitting before him. The healer slowly wound them around his hands as he removed them, layer by layer, from the face of the Commander of the Knights of Sarjanus. When the last of the wrappings were removed, a second healer reached out and gently removed the blood-spotted dressing. Standing back, both men looked first upon the wound, and then at each other. Without speaking a word, their faces told the full story.
“So I’ve lost it,” Galen Sharp replied flatly, his remaining eye studying the faces of the healers standing over him. “I’ve already come to accept it. Now tend it quickly, so I can get back to my work.”
“Your work’s gotten much more complicated,” Abbot Gude said, looking into Galen’s face and studying the empty socket that had once held the Knight Commander’s eye. “The Sacred Father will not be pleased. I promised them we would not fail – yet it seems we have.”
Gude sat on a softly padded, high backed chair in the great hall of Castle Leiche – one of the many holdings of the Holy Office. After departing the abbey ahead of its attackers, he and his monks – along with a contingent of Sarjanian knights – journeyed down the Sirenese Valley through Needle Falls Pass, making their way quickly to the Castle stronghold. The former ancestral home of the Barons of Nestor, Castle Leiche had been seized by Wheems fifty years before, when the last and final baron rebelled against the increased grain tax imposed by the Holy Office to increase the church’s treasury.
The castle itself remained largely unused – maintained and kept in repair by a small group of indentures, a prefect, and a few monks. What truly made Castle Leiche desirable to the Holy Office were the vast holdings that were attached to the Barony of Nestor – acres of fertile land, with orchards and wheat fields. They, along with two large stone quarries, a series of grain mills along the River Black, and a salt mine near its far western boundaries, made the barony a prize plum waiting to be plucked. And when Ardo Karron, the last official Baron of Nestor, protested the tax and withheld the increased percentage he’d been levied, the wheels of the Holy Office moved in their usual scheming ways until it finally became a possession of Wheems.
Of course, there was never any evidence to substantiate the claims of foul play leveled by the Baroness. Having gone missing for over a week after leaving the castle one morning to go hunting, the baron’s body was discovered in the forests surrounding Castle Leiche, with evidence of a blow to his head. His horse was never found, and it was ruled that he’d been thrown, hit his head on a tree stump, and died. More surprising, but not entirely unexpected, was the baron’s last “testament,” produced by the abbot of the nearest monastery, in which the late baron bequeathed title to Castle Leiche and all baronial lands to the Holy Office, thus disinheriting his wife, the baroness. Since their marriage had produced no children, there were no other potential heirs to dispute the testament, and the baroness – now penniless and without property – was forced to enter a local convent, where she died less than a year later.
The Holy Office quickly took title to the baronial lands and reaped the rewards. Castle Leiche, a jewel of a castle and a great architectural treasure, was maintained as a summer residence for the Sacred Father, but rarely used.
In the glow of a nearby fire, Galen turned to his mentor. “Have you sent a report to the Sacred Father and the Diet yet, Lord Abbot?” Galen asked, wincing slightly as one of the healers cleaned the wound and daubed it with a pale green ointment.
“No, I’ve yet to send them a report, but I must do so soon,” Gude replied.
“Very good my Lord, then there’s still time to succeed.”
“You’re in no condition to do anything, Galen,” Gude said.
“I’m fine, Lord Abbot,” Galen responded. “You have set a task for the knights, and we will execute it.”
As Galen spoke his voice took on a tone of steely determination. After the incident at the Amber Palace, he was even more determined to succeed.
Most other men would have been grieving and angry over the loss of an eye, but Galen’s anger was far deeper and more personal. The fact that he had lost the eye was secondary to the reason why he’d lost it. That a slave boy – an indenture of the Holy Office – would act with such insolence and determination, both angered and chilled him.
The mission had only been partly successful. The spy placed in the Amber Palace reported that the quarters of the leaders of the demons was always guarded and it was to that apartment he and his men should go. But after killing the guards, they soon discovered a small child with wings and the slave occupied the rooms they’d entered. Galen had been more than magnanimous to the slave during the capture of the little winged demon. He’d not only offered him his life, but forgiveness for his sins. Given the usual obedience of most slaves, Galen was sure the boy would accept – even be grateful for the gift of his life.
Yet seconds after his offer was made, the boy flew into a rage. He stood before Galen and his men with the all the defiance of Kartannus the Great at the Gates of Rundstat. Pushing out his chest, he declared himself an Icarian and said he would never relinquish his freedom. In fact, he told Galen in the crudest of terms what he thought of the Knight Commander’s offer. He shouted that he would prefer death to slavery and that’s when he’d attacked. The Knight Commander and his knights were so surprised they didn’t have time to react when he charged at Galen, driving a writing stylus into his eye. Galen, while in great pain, found himself angrier at the boy’s insolence than his attack. As punishment for the boy’s defiance, Galen had been the one to wield the sword that killed the slave.
Now reflecting on the events of that night while the healers re-dressed his wound, Galen shuddered. These Icarians were far more dangerous than Abbot Gude had led him to believe. If they could turn a docile slave into a rebellious heretic, what further damage could they do to the society that the church – his church – had worked centuries to create? If they could give false hope to a slave, what influence might they have with a freeman? What encouragement might they give one of the many nobles chafing under ecclesiastic law?
“Anarchy,” Galen whispered under his breath. “It will all lead to anarchy and godlessness.”
“What did you say, Galen?” Gude asked.
“Nothing, my Lord Abbot,” Galen replied. “But I implore you, do not contact the Holy Office yet. There is still time to correct the mistake.”
“Time isn’t something we have much of, Galen,” Gude replied. “We can only keep this quiet for a short time. Torban Honore and the Sacred Diet will be suspicious if they don’t receive word soon, and then it won’t matter. They’ll send their own agents and learn the truth. As it is, we’re lucky that Prefect Brunn has charge of the castle. He was a former novice under me when I was Prefect, and remains loyal to me. At the moment, no one knows we’re here.”
“Of course, my Lord Abbot, I understand the situation and I agree completely,” Galen said. “But with a little more time we may be able to succeed – in fact, I know we can.”
“Very well Galen, I’ll hold on my reply,” Gude said, giving his Knight Commander one of his sour frowns. “But I can’t hold them off forever. The Sacred Father will demand answers – sooner, rather than later.”
“And answers he shall have,” Galen said, standing up and brushing aside the doting hands of the healers who had just finished applying the final bandage.
“Pardon any disrespect Lord Abbot, but I still don’t know why we fled the abbey. It was impenetrable, no?”
“Our spy warned us that they were coming, and given our defenses, we couldn’t take the risk of capture or death at the demon’s hands. The abbey is isolated, and we couldn’t count on any outside support to come quickly to our aid. It was best to withdraw here, and now that I’ve learned the outcome of the siege, I can see it was providential that we did. No one knew anything about a hidden way into the abbey. I’ve always kept close ties with Kato Brunn, and I knew I could count on his loyalty, and knew that Leiche would be a safe haven if ever danger loomed.”
“By your faith and prayers, God and the Blessed Prophet have saved us, my Lord,” Galen said.
“Prayers and faith are necessary, Galen,” Gude sneered, “But God and the Blessed Prophet only help those who have the common sense to have more than one plan in their pocket.”
“And do you have one?” Galen asked.
“Of course, Galen. Our forces are small, so waging open warfare would be suicide. There are other ways to get what we desire,” Gude said, his face creasing in a deeper frown.
Blinking in surprise, Galen began to speak, but was interrupted when Prefect Brunn entered the hall and approached Gude.
“My Lord Abbot, the monks have been given a place to stay, the knights are guarding the castle, all the horses have been cared for, and everything you’ve brought from the abbey has been secured in the castle. Is there anything else you desire?”
“No Kato,” Gude said. “For now we’re fine, but time is of the essence.”
“We must plan and prepare for our next move,” Galen said.
“I’ve already begun to,” Gude replied.
“Very good, my lord,” Prefect Brunn said. “I will leave you and the Knight Commander to your discussions.”
Moving to leave their presence, Brunn paused, turned, and looked back upon the abbot.
“Yes, Kato?” Gude said, sensing there was more the prefect wished to say.
“My Lord Abbot,” he began, then paused. “My Lord Abbot… it’s just… well, My Lord… it’s… it’s just everything you’ve done for the church, the sacrifices you’ve made, the dedication of your whole life, are such an inspiration. Forgive my boldness… but… well, if anyone should sit in the chair of Galaxon as Sacred Father, it is you.” Flushing red at his boldness, Brunn turned and rushed from the room.
“Prefect Brunn is correct, My Lord,” Galen said. “If anyone deserves the chair of Galaxon it is one such as yourself, who has dedicated his entire life selflessly to the service of the church.”
“In time, Galen,” Gude whispered to no one but himself, “In time…”