Sir Aaron and his guests had just finished supper when a page entered. “There’s a cleric at the gate, my Lord, who says he is a friend of Sir James and Sir Kenneth. He says his name is Arne, and his manner is furtive.”
At Sir Aaron’s raised eyebrow, James said, “You’ve met Arne, Sir Aaron, but I don’t know why his manner would be so. Perhaps I should go to the door.”
“James, I’m so glad you are here…Alten’s dead…and Senshen would kill me, too, if he knew I were here…” Arne’s voice was husky with emotion. James felt grief and dread.
“You must come in, then. Please, open the door. Call Alan…” James said to Arne, the guard, and the page, respectively.
“What do you mean, Senshen would kill me, too,” James asked Arne.
“I think Senshen killed Alten,” Arne said.
“We’d all better hear this…and so should Sir Aaron,” James said.
“Alten had locked himself in his workshop and warded the doors, as he often does. When he didn’t come out for Nones, little was thought of it. But when he didn’t come out for Vespers, and didn’t answer my knocks, Senshen insisted on releasing the wards and breaking down the door. Why Senshen was there, I don’t know…or didn’t know, then.
“I didn’t think Senshen could break the wards, and when he suggested doing so, I looked at them…they were not Alten’s! I have been his acolyte for nearly 65 years. I know his signature. I know how he sets his wards, and the pattern he uses. Even so, I could not have broken them. But, these were not Alten’s wards.
“Senshen broke the wards easily…too easily, I think. Breaking down the door was a little more difficult, but two of Senshen’s followers used the top of a trestle table as a ram.
“Alten was in his workroom, dead. Senshen refused to allow me to go near him, and pronounced that he’d died of a heart attack. That’s not possible…I had examined Alten just the week before, and corrected a slight buildup in one coronary artery.
“And…the book Alten was working with was missing. I did see that…Alten kept the book in one place, and one place only, a niche that was shielded to prevent the magic of the book from affecting or being affected by magic in the temple. When he worked with the book it was always on the lectern set inside the niche.”
“What was this book?” Patrick asked.
“It was something that had been recovered from a ship that sank in the harbor under unusual circumstances about a year ago. The cover read held words in an unknown language, although the characters were normal. They were not magical, and I could write them out for you, if you like.”
“Please,” Patrick said. On a scrap of paper, Arne wrote, CAVEAT LECTOR.
“Hmmm, doesn’t mean anything to me. Not,” Patrick said, “that I expected to be able to read it if Alten couldn’t. One of Marcus’ books was a collection of magical words and phrases…some from spells, some descriptive. I’ll look in it, later.”
“So,” James added, “the book was Evil, and Alten had it in a shielded niche…”
“No,” Arne interrupted, “it was not Evil. Alten let me handle it once, to feel the magic that it emitted. It was not Evil, nor had it been long in Evil hands. Its interference with the magical field was different and localized. More of a swirl without a darkening or a breaking, as Evil does.” Arne looked at James. “It was entirely different from the field of that sword, for example.”
James nodded his understanding. “It sounds as if it might have been merely a book of spells. Most spells can be worked for Good or for Evil, and if the former owner of the book wasn’t especially Good or Evil…or if it hadn’t been used in a long while, then it wouldn’t have a strong component field.”
Arne continued, “I think that Senshen killed Alten, killed him in order to gain possession of the book, whether for his own use or some other reason I cannot guess.”
By now, the time was past compline; however, Sir Aaron was adamant, this matter demanded the attention of Prince Auric, and without delay. He hurried the entire group through the pathways of the palace complex and into a side door. A startled page was sent to wake the prince while at Sir Aaron’s insistence he and the others were shown to the Privy Chamber. They did not have long to wait.
“Sir Aaron,” the prince began, “What?”
“Grave news, my Lord. Senior Alten is dead, and likely murdered,” the Privy Counselor said. “The news was brought by Arne. You will remember him as Alten’s acolyte. He can best relate what has transpired.”
Arne reported to the prince what he had told Patrick, and then Sir Aaron, earlier. When he finished, Patrick added, “The only thing we know about the book is that it had a magical residue about it, that was neither Dark nor Light, and that it had certain words written on the cover—words that Arne has written down for us.”
Prince Auric sat for a moment digesting what he’d heard. “This is indeed, grave news. If, indeed, Senshen is the murderer—not that I doubt you, Arne, but the demands of justice are greater than my faith in you—then the best possible interpretation of the events is that he is an ambitious opportunist. A more dire interpretation is that he is part of the Evil that is attempting to seek a foothold in Arcadia.
“Even if Senshen is only an ambitious opportunist, he cannot remain in a position of power at the Central temple of this land. That would weaken the temple unacceptably. Sir Aaron, what are your thoughts?”
“An investigation, my Lord. If you would, the rest of your Privy Council can be here in less than two hours…”
Prince Auric interrupted, “Thank you, Sir Aaron, but no. Ivan’s investiture is tomorrow…no, it’s past midnight. Ivan’s investiture is today. There is no time to involve the Privy Council or to conduct a normal investigation.”
He turned to Patrick. “You already have authority to dispense Royal Justice. I know that I’ve asked a great deal of you and your companions; however, would you undertake an immediate investigation and resolution? I think a public trial would show the country and all those who would stand against it that we will not tolerate Evil!”
Patrick looked at the prince. “My Lord, I will do as you ask. However, it may not be possible to bring the guilty party to trial. We do not know what we may face in this matter.”
“Of course,” the prince replied. “I will support your judgment.”
Patrick and the prince shared a private conversation before Patrick led his companions from the room.
Back in Alan’s quarters, Patrick outlined a plan. Alan added, “Ivan wants us with him during the investiture, of course, but he will understand that this may be the best time to search the temple for evidence to convict Alten. I must be there, and Greyeyes, as well.”
“Of course,” Patrick said. “But the rest of us? I think we can be absent.”
“So,” James said, “We don’t have to practice being young gentlemen… Oh, Alan, I’m sorry…that was Thom’s joke, wasn’t it…”
“Don’t be sorry, my friend,” Alan said, “I was thinking the same thing…and I’m glad that we can think of Thom, and smile or laugh.”
“You’re going to raid a temple, then,” Greyeyes suggested.
“Remember the first one we raided…Patrick’s arm got broken saving your head,” Darryn added.
“This may be even more dangerous than that,” James said, grimly.
That morning, near tierce, the companions, less Alan and Greyeyes, plus Arne, approached the temple. They were all dressed in plain white robes with cowls. Daggers and poniards were hidden under the robes. They’d left heavier weapons behind.
As they approached the temple, the cleric on the gate—a young Probationer not important enough to be invited to the ceremony—stepped out to challenge them. Before he could speak, Kenneth pushed back his cowl and grumbled, “Not enough room for the youngsters, they said. Go home, they said. Come back when you’re older, they said.”
The acolyte at the gate, who drew this duty for the very reason that he was young and unimportant, heard the words and drew the conclusion that Kenneth wanted him to draw. The boy withdrew into the gatehouse, and the companions passed easily into the courtyard.
“Okay, Darryn,” James said, “Look hard. Arne, lead the way to Senshen’s quarters. We’ll start there.”
“Patrick, if you and Arne would create a dampening field…like the one Arne described Alten putting around the book…it would keep in any noise that Darryn might create while he picks the lock and breaks the wards…and muffle any alarm that Senshen might have created. Kenneth, watch for magical attack; I will stand guard against any mundane threat.” James whispered. Each person nodded understanding, and took his place in the hallway outside Senshen’s door.
“There…under the basin…the entire stand is a puzzle box,” Darryn whispered.
Patrick and Arne maintained the dampening field; Darryn lifted the basin that was set in a hole in the top of the stand and manipulated the decorative filigree. Normally, one would pour wastewater into a bucket below the hole, but Senshen had turned the furniture into a hiding place. A panel under the hole slid aside. Darryn reached in and pulled out a book. On the cover he saw the words that Arne had written, Caveat Lector.
Kenneth stuck his head inside the door. “Someone coming,” he whispered to James.
“Any alarms?” Patrick asked Arne, who shook his head. “Then release the damping field.”
“Who are you? And why...” a familiar voice came from the hallway. Then, “James? What are you doing here?”
“Finding Alten’s murderer,” James answered. “You must come with us.”
James stuck his head back inside the door. “It’s Dan and Kevin…they can’t stay here, now.”
Patrick nodded, “Of course. Bring them. Arne, would you lead us out and back to the Palace, please.”
The boys encountered no one as they left the temple. The Probationer who had duty at the gate was not interested in people who might be leaving, and didn’t give them a second glance. The crowd made its way to Sir Aaron’s quarters.
“How is the investiture going?” Patrick asked the guard at the gate.
“The Ducal fanfare sounded not five minutes ago,” he said.
“They’ll be another hour, then,” Patrick said. “Time enough for what we need to do.”
Dan and Kevin hugged James and Kenneth. “We’re so glad to see you…” Dan began.
“Everyone knew you had returned…” Kevin continued.
“And that you were famous, now. Alten said we were under no circumstances to let people know we knew you…” Dan said.
“We were afraid you’d forgotten us,” Kevin concluded.
James hugged the boys in turn. “No, not forgotten. Remember, we are forever oath-bound. But we were concerned for your safety. Now, however, you must wait here until we return. You will be safe.”
The investiture and Prince Auric’s reception were over, and the crowd was dispersing to the several parties that would be held to celebrate the restoration of a duchy and an important barony. Sir Aaron drew Senshen aside. “The prince craves a word with you, senior,” the man said, as he bowed low. He had been carefully coached.
“Undoubtedly wants my thoughts on temple staffing. Lots of new appointments, of course,” Senshen said as he waved off his toadies. “Enjoy the parties.”
The nature of the rooms and hallways changed as Sir Aaron led the cleric higher and higher into the palace. Going to the private apartments, Senshen thought, I knew it…I knew that my importance would be realized.
Sir Aaron bowed again as he opened a door, and gestured Senshen through. The cleric stopped with a startled look on his face as he saw faces he detested. James, Kenneth … what are they doing here? And their so-called companions. Arne … that traitorous boy! Where has he been? And the new Viscount? What is this place? It’s not a royal apartment … What is going on?
The room was circular, and lit only by clerestory windows just below a domed ceiling painted to resemble the night sky…familiar patterns of stars glowed with light reflected from the crystals set in strategic places in the walls. Senshen turned to ask Sir Aaron … and realized that the man had not come into the room with him … he was alone with these people. He reached to open the door, and discovered that there was no knob or handle. The door could not be opened from the inside.
“What is the meaning of this,” he blustered, “You dare not hold me here. Open this door at once!”
“Be still,” the tall, redheaded elf said, and his voice carried a tone of command that Senshen found he could not disobey. He stood, mute.
The elf lifted a book from the bench and held it up so that Senshen could see the cover. The man blanched when he realized what it was. But he could not speak or move.
“Caveat lector,” Patrick said. “Do you know, now, what those words mean?”
When Senshen shook his head, Patrick continued, “Let the reader beware. That is the translation. It’s a language related to Old Elvish. It was used on another world around the time of the last Great War, or will be used there ten thousand thousand years from now. Did you determine what the book was?”
Senshen fought the compulsion to tell the truth, but failed. Again he shook his head.
“It’s a book of stories; satirical stories; funny stories; risqué stories; stories about people in another world at another time. Was it worth Alten’s life and your own to steal it?”
Senshen’s mouth dropped open. “I killed Alten for a book of stories? That conniving old…” His conscious brain suddenly realized what his subconscious had done.
“So,” Patrick said, “you did kill Alten.”
Although the magical compulsion had fallen away from Alten, he continued his confession, “Yes, I killed the old coot. Should have done it years ago. But don’t think you can do anything about it. I’ll deny everything that happened here…and there’s no way people will believe a bunch of boys…especially you elves.” Freed from the mysterious paralysis, Senshen began to gather magic to blast the boys…
“What? There’s no magic here! What have you done?” he stepped toward the dais, but fell on his face when a bolt of magical energy, created and cast by Patrick, pierced his brain. The man died instantly.
“He confessed, my Lord,” James replied. “And it was a true confession.”
“You were right, of course,” Prince Auric said. “A public trial and execution would not have been in the best interests of the Light, the nation, or the temple.”
The prince turned to Patrick. “Patrick, I now regret that you had to be the executioner. It was a task that I should not have delegated. Again, you have put me in your debt.”
“My Lord,” Patrick said, “If I have any claim on your favor, I ask that you never put me on that dais again…the power that it confers is too great. I…I did not like the way I felt…”
“Patrick, why was James not the executioner? After all, Alten was his mentor…his patron,” Kenneth asked.
“It does seem fitting, doesn’t it?” Patrick answered. “James admired Alten, was grateful to him, and loved him. Why shouldn’t James have had his revenge on Senshen by killing him?”
“Oh,” Kenneth said. “Do you really think James would have killed Senshen for revenge?”
“No, I don’t think James would have killed from hatred or for revenge…nor do I ever want anyone to think that he might have…we all know that he would not…but, if one day the record is released, I would rather it show that I was the executioner, and not James.”
Senshen’s death of a massive stroke so soon after the death of Alten shocked the city, but not nearly as much as the aftermath shocked the lickspittles he had gathered around him at the temple. One by one, twenty clerics were brought to the Star Chamber in the palace, where the greatest magics of the age compelled the truth and prevented them from using magic to attack those who sat in judgment. This time, the judges were the prince and senior clerics recommended by Arne. Most of Senshen’s cadre were allowed to return to the temple, reduced in station and privilege, and enjoined to relearn what it meant to serve the Light. Three, who had foresworn themselves, were dismissed and banished.
“Don’t we create potential enemies by releasing those men and banishing them?” Kenneth asked James, afterwards.
“Yes, but they were not Evil enough to execute, nor, unlike Senshen, had they committed a capital crime. Sometimes I think that we who serve the Light also serve Balance…by not killing men who will certainly become our enemies, we contribute to the tension between Light and Dark.
“It’s so sad that Alten had to die over a storybook,” James said.
“Oh,” Patrick said, “I meant to tell you. I lied.”
“I didn’t know that it was a book of stories. In fact, I still don’t know what it is. The title does translate as I said, and the language is similar to Old Elvish. Prince Auric has suggested that I take it to Elvenhold and turn it over to the College of Magic, there. The new senior and Arne agree. It’s sealed inside my pack…”
The roads of Arcadia were clear of the throngs who had attended the five-day festival and market that marked the Autumnal Equinox. A small group of boys, tweens, and men rode down the main avenue toward the western gate. At intervals along the way, other parties joined them. First, two score soldiers in tabards bearing a silver harp on a black shield: the ancient badge of the new Duke MacLachlan. Leading the soldiers was Alan, a tall human tween dressed in brown and green. He wore no tabard, but on his vest was an escutcheon bearing two coats of arms: the harp, and Alan’s own, as Viscount Silvanus. His shoulder-length, silver-blond hair was bound with a leather cord across his forehead, and flowed like a river in the breeze of his passage. His horse, the Clydesdale ironically named Dasher, pranced, and bobbed his head as if acknowledging accolades from the silent streets.
Alan’s sword resembled what might have been called a Claymore in another place and at another time. Its haft was long enough that the sword could be used two-handed. Alan, however, was strong enough to use it with one hand to better effect than most swordsmen would use an epee. He also wore a poniard, which he preferred to a shield. He unconsciously used an innate magical skill to give him the speed and agility to deflect even arrows with the poniard. A long-bow and arrows were stored in a leather quiver tied to his saddlebags.
At Alan’s gesture, four of the soldiers spurred their horses to take the lead. They saluted as they passed the lead group.
As the party passed the temple, six clerics rode out to join them. At their head was James, a raven-haired human tween whose pearl gray clothing nearly matched the color of his horse, which sported a white blaze in its forehead. If one watched James closely, one might see an occasional glint of steel from the chain-mail shirt he wore under his tunic.
James wore a long sword with a simple guard. He relied on a poniard for defense, but also used the magical skills of a Warrior-Cleric to provide protection from missile weapons.
Behind the four lead soldiers rode a prince and a duke. Prince Taam, Atheling of the Cordillera, rode a quarter horse named Nimrod, a gift from Alan. The horse had belonged to Thom, Alan’s companion who had been killed during the restoration of the House of MacLachlan. The duke was Ivan of MacLachlan, only recently a boy. Taam was accompanied by his companion, Kaam, and a new friend: Henry, a tween, formerly Squire to the Arcadian Secretary of State, and now Ambassador to the Cordillera. Ivan’s constant companion and Chancellor was Greyeyes, an elven boy, only recently turned tween. Greyeyes had bound his auburn hair with a green headband. Greyeyes, a champion archer, wore his long bow and a quiver of arrows.
Trying to keep an eye on all these boys, as well as his own son at the head of the soldiers, was Sir Aaron, Lord Silvanus, former Privy Counselor to Prince Auric, and now…well, perhaps Minister without Portfolio was a better title than chaperone.
Three companions rode toward the northern gate of the city. They had earlier said their goodbyes, and were anxious to be on their way.
Patrick, a tall elven tween, rode in front of two boys. Patrick’s unruly red hair was unbound. He wore rust-brown tights and a deep green tunic. His horse, an elven palomino named Windchaser, struck sparks from the cobbles with her mithral shoes. Patrick wore a thin, light longsword. While he was reasonably proficient with the weapon, he relied more on magical skills for both offense and defense.
Behind the elf rode Kenneth, an elf-human boy. His horse was a brown elven stallion marked with white mane and tail, and matching stockings on all but the off front foot. A green band that matched his eyes bound his long, honey-brown hair. Kenneth, the youngest son of the Duke of Carter, and future Baron of the Marches of the Sea, carried a long sword, poniard, and two daggers.
Beside Kenneth, also mounted on an elven horse, rode an elven boy. Darryn usually sported brightly colored tights and shirt, but for travel wore plain brown clothing. Beneath his shirt was the mithral sept medallion that had saved his life from an assassin’s blade such a short time ago. Darryn fingered the medallion through his tunic. The glitter of Darryn and Kenneth’s mithral chain armor was covered by their shirts. Darryn carried a short-sword. Daggers peeped from his belt and boot tops.
The weather was brisk, but the sun would be bright. It almost never rained during the month of Halcyon.
Less than a day southeast of Arcadia, a party of four approached the city. David, a human who was a knight of Elvenhold, led. A new tween, George born on Earth but become a mage; Gary, son of the Smith of Bowling Green, and an alchemist; and Larry, outcast from his home, now a healer second only to David, accompanied him. They were searching for an echo—the echo of Evil they had heard within seconds of Ivan’s taking up the Sword of the MacLachlan, although they did not yet know about the sword.
Three parties on three missions. There was little doubt that their paths would intersect.
Thus ends the story of the restoration of the House of MacLachlan. There is still Evil in World, and there are still heroes, paladins, and ordinary people who will seek to promote and defend that which is Good. Look for more stories of World on the site, www.gayauthors.org. Please leave your comments and questions as a review, by PM on that site, by email to email@example.com.