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Falcon’s Night
Falcon Dreams - Book III
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-351-4
Genre: Fantasy/SF/Medieval
eBook Length: 649 Pages
Published: April 2006

From inside the flap

Margerite’s defeat of the sorceress Ortlieb, unwittingly earning her the rank of Princess in the Order of Lightbearers, puts her company into greater peril and brings them to the attention of the Inquisition. Now she struggles to maintain her deception within the Order, defend her company from the Papal investigators, and stave off her step-son’s attempts to bring her powers under his control by annulling her marriage. Can she continue the masquerade without imperiling her soul, or will she drag everyone down with her?

Falcon’s Night (Excerpt)

Chapter I

Nikolaus sat in his own chamber, the keening night wind lashing pellets of sleet against the little glass panes of the arrow-slits. It was foul weather, even for the end of October, and the room in Burg Furstensee’s old tower -- built more for defence than for comfort, unlike some of the later-built parts of the castle -- was always a little chilly even when the fire of his stove roared at its full strength. He stretched his stockinged feet out towards the stove, letting the warmth soak deep into his frozen bones: even his heaviest boots could not keep out the cold of his cavern-sanctum, and he had been down there long that night, speaking again with the ghost of Graf Gunther.

So Priestess Margerite has brought challenge to Princess Ortlieb, he thought. The knowledge brought him some relief after the long months of worry, of carefully phrasing his Order reports so that there would be no hint of his failure in watching over her -- and, worse, in holding the demon in his elder brother’s body under control. He had not guessed at the power that the eclipse would lend it, enough to wrest free of the carefully crafted bonds that kept Christoph acting closely enough to himself that none would blame his vagaries on anything more than grief and strain. Yet, Nikolaus consoled himself, he had won mastery over it again, without even the aid Gunther’s ghost had given him in calling it up, and that was sufficient to prove him worthy of the Order’s onyx ring, though he would have to be most circumspect in demonstrating his skill.

Wrapping his hand in cloth against the metal’s heat, Nikolaus lifted the silver pitcher of Gluhwein from the top of the stove, pouring out a gobletful for himself. He blew hot steam from the drink, sipping carefully at it: strong red wine, honey, a touch of precious cinnamon, all fit to restore the warm humours of his body after a night of speaking to the dead in the cold. If Margerite had chosen, as was any Order member’s right, to call challenge on Ortlieb, then Nikolaus was no longer responsible for her actions: should she succeed in slaying the Light-Bearer Princess, Margerite would wear Ortlieb’s ruby ring on her finger thereafter; while, should she fail ... she, and her son, would be Ortlieb’s responsibility.

And am I, then, to lose such a prize? Nikolaus thought angrily. With an effort, he calmed himself: as unfitting for a magician of the Order of Light-Bearers to let himself be mastered by fury as by any other feeling. Order ranks and rights might, to the initiated, supersede the ranks and rights of law; but they could not overturn them. While his father Graf Heinrich still drew breath, Margerite was bound by law to Burg Furstensee; until her son Wolfram reached his majority, she would be regent in Burg Falkenstein -- now held by men who were Nikolaus? in truth, though they believed that it was still Christoph who ordered them while his father was incapacitated.

As well that I did not slay my father straight off, but have taken care that he remains alive, though he can neither speak nor move. Nikolaus allowed himself a brief smile: always trusting that Ortlieb did not simply dispose of her, Margerite belonged to Burg Furstensee; and Burg Furstensee belonged to Nikolaus. And soon she will belong to me more directly: the Pope shall grant my request, for it costs him nothing and gains him monies that he needs desperately -- and she shall no longer be my stepmother, but free to wed me.

But what drove her to seek out Ortlieb? Nikolaus rested his elbows on the polished table-top, staring at the gold haloes of the two candles reflected in the shiny dark wood as though he might see some answering vision there. Ambition, perhaps: Nikolaus had heard that Margerite’s father was a poor Ritter holding a little border keep; having leapt from Ritter’s daughter to Grafin of Falkenstein to Grafin of Furstensee -- did Margerite now seek a higher place yet, as Landgrafin of Niederwald, hardly a step beneath the wife of Kaiser Karl himself? Nikolaus could credit that easily enough, for he had heard of how swiftly she had seized her rights as mistress of Burg Falkenstein after Graf Ruprecht’s death, and here in Burg Furstensee she had wasted no time in gathering the reins of what power she could into her hands. Once Margerite had overcome those vestiges of squeamish sentiment that still seemed to plague her, she would be worthy indeed of the ring Ortlieb wore -- if she could overcome the magics of the Order Princess. An unequal battle that might be, like a new-made squire lifting his sword against a knight belted for twenty years; but Graf Gunther assured him that there was more to Margerite than her short half-year of Order learning hinted at. And she would have help: Graf Gunther’s, limited though he might be by the bounds that had been set upon his spirit in punishment for his failure at Wolfram’s birth; Nikolaus? own, as much as he could give ... and, it might be, the aid of their Master, Whose son had grown within her womb and nursed now at her breast.

* * *

The gardens of the Bishop’s courtyard shimmered pale with Martinmas frost beneath the morning sun, ice glazing the stone seats and shining mirror-bright from the surfaces of the little pools. Her son cradled warmly under her fur-lined cloak, Margerite stood between Georg and Eva, with Bernhardt discreetly on the squire’s other side; the Bishop and several churchmen were there as well, and Father Etienne standing slim and straight in his black robe and rolled canon’s hat, ready to lead the celebratory Mass. Before them, Arnmut knelt in front of Ritter Gottfried. In spite of the cold, the squire’s fair head and white feet were bare, though otherwise he was dressed as befitted a young man of knightly birth, in thick woolen hose and a blue doublet of fine wool trimmed with black velvet. Ritter Gottfried’s black velvet doublet bulged over the bandage that wrapped his shoulder; he had untied the plain dark tail of his hair, its loose silken shimmer softening the severe lines of his sharp face, and he smiled down at his Knappe with a look of rare joy, though it seemed that his cold gray eyes watered a little in the winter brightness.

"Arnmut von Eisenstein," Gottfried said, his strong baritone voice rough -- with the sting of tears? Margerite wondered. For something precious was ending: Gottfried must soon take another Knappe, as Arnmut would have a squire of his own, and the two of them might well be parted by their duties when they came back to Burg Furstensee. "Well have you served me as Knappe, through many dangers and hardships; well have you proven yourself in battle, by the strength of your arm and your honour. I offer you now the oath of a knight. Will you swear this day, before these nobles of the Church and of this world, to raise your sword in defence of the defenceless ...."

Margerite could not help glancing sideways at Bernhardt. His face was still as he listened to Gottfried speaking. Once Bernhardt had knelt as Arnmut did and sworn the same vows: how many of them had he been forced to break in the harrowing course of his long exile?

That is over now, Margerite reminded herself. Whatever Bernhardt does after this, he shall do in his own name as knight and nobleman, and no longer have to cloak himself in a lesser evil in order to strike a blow against the greater.

Beside Bernhardt, Georg trembled a little with eagerness, his blue eyes shining beneath the shadow of his deep red hood. Margerite needed no spell or talisman to tell her the youth’s thoughts. Georg was thinking of the day when he, too, would take that oath, and no doubt hoping that it would not be long. He had shown his mettle as surely as Arnmut had, carrying Bernhardt’s standard in that desperate battle with Ortlieb’s troops: the neatly sewn wound that slashed down the side of his freckled cheek stood as proof of his bravery. If only Christoph ... but surely it would not be long before Father Etienne turned homeward with them, to free Heinrich’s eldest son from the demon that raged within his flesh! Then, Christ willing, Christoph would be able to name his own Knappe as knight, and surely would do when he heard of Georg’s bravery.

The sunlight flashed blue from the polished steel edges of Gottfried’s sword as the young knight drew blade, tapping Arnmut’s broad shoulders and shining hair. Despite his wounded arm, Gottfried’s hand flickered out so swiftly that Margerite could hardly see its path, striking Arnmut’s cheek hard enough to rock his head back.

"Let that be the last blow you take for which you do not give answer," Gottfried said proudly. "Arise now, Ritter Arnmut." He took the new knight’s square hands in his own thin ones, lifting Arnmut to his feet and embracing him tightly as he kissed the young man’s fair cheeks. Arnmut clung to Gottfried in turn, as if they had been lovers long-parted, and Margerite swallowed hard against the lump rising in her throat. It ought to have been one of Arnmut’s kinswomen, or his lady, who girded him with the belt of knighthood: but they were far from Burg Eisenstein, Margerite was wedded, and Eva was ... almost spoken for by Christoph. If she can still bear to have him -- Margerite thrust the thought away hard. So it was Gottfried who buckled the white belt about Arnmut’s waist and fastened the spurs upon his heels. Bernhardt embraced the new-made Ritter in turn with the kiss of brotherhood, and Margerite found her eyes closing for a moment: while Heinrich drew breath, she would never feel Bernhardt’s lips upon her own skin, nor the solid strength of his body warm against her own. Indeed, it might be that they must soon say their farewells for a while, for Bernhardt had his battle of law to fight against his brother, and Margerite had ... her own duties.

The thought dogged Margerite through the celebratory Mass, shadowing the brilliant play of colours through Bishop Otto’s stained-glass windows and dulling the brightness of the beeswax candles in her mind. Even when the Bishop lifted the Host, the gilded plate on which the bread rested flashing the windows? rays of red and blue, purple and gold, like clear light broken through water into rainbows, she found it hard to turn her thoughts to the Mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood; nor did the deep smooth gleam of the thumb-sized amethysts set about the bowl and foot of the silver chalice soothe Margerite’s mind, though she knew that to be one of the virtues of Jupiter’s stone.

Bishop Otto had ordered up a fair feast, celebrating Martinmas and Arnmut’s knighting at once. Three great roasted geese stuffed with apples and chestnuts held pride of place on the Bishop’s table, their crackling brown skin glazed shiny with honey. The best pure white salt glittered in the shell-shaped silver cellar; rich cheese pastries steamed upon silver dishes, and the dry spicy white wine from France flowed freely into the silver goblets. The heavy weight of Kobolt’s furry side leaned against Margerite’s leg, and when she was not quick enough to slip a sliver of goose meat down from the table, she would feel the cat’s paw upon her thigh and the delicate touch of claws; she noticed, as well, that Eva’s hand dropped from her plate every so often, and guessed that Kriemhilt was serving her in the same manner.

"It has been a delight to have you here, Grafin Margerite," the Bishop said politely to her.

"I thank you for your kindness to us, your Grace," Margerite answered. "Surely you have treated us with every charity and honour, and I hope that someday we shall be able to repay you."

The Bishop waved a heavy hand, the amethyst of his episcopal ring glinting. "You have done far more for the good folk of Niederwald by your part in bringing down the Landgrafin’s evil." He shuddered, his ruddy face paling for a moment as if he were recalling the horrors he had seen in Ortlieb’s wain. "Be sure that all Christians in this land would thank you, if they knew what you have done! But now I would ask what your plans are, so that I may better aid you. Do you think you will need much longer to recover from your ordeal, or do you mean to start southward before the snow blocks the road? You will assuredly be welcome here for as long as you choose to stay -- yet I know that it must grieve you to have been so long away from your husband, in his sorrowful state."

Margerite started. She had not expected this choice to come on her so soon; and the temptation to stay with the Bishop for the winter, here in his court where she and Wolfram were safe from the Order of Light-Bearers, safe from Nikolaus? machinations ... and from the sounds of hoofbeats and hunting horn through the night-storms, for Burg Furstensee was not, after all, so very far from Burg Falkenstein ... was very great, like the temptation to stay snuggled deep in a warm featherbed on a morning when a crust of ice glazed her bowl of washing-water. Yet there was still Christoph to think of; and beyond that -- she tried to press the thought down, but could not -- there was no way to know whether Heinrich still lived: Margerite could be a widow even now, and free to marry ....

Bernhardt’s head was bent doggedly over his plate, as if he feared to meet Margerite’s gaze. His hair still looked odd, a finger’s-length of brown showing above stark walnut-dyed black, as if the Landgraf’s son were only slowly pushing away the soldier of the Free Companies; still, better for him to look a little strange than to crop his head like that of a peasant or criminal. But Father Etienne was staring straight at Margerite, his pale sapphire eyes piercing through her own, and his sternness goaded her on as surely as the brightness of morning light reminding her that it was time to arise from sleep.

"It does, indeed," Margerite told the Bishop. "Though I shall be sad to leave you, it were best for me to be going within a few days, no longer."

Bishop Otto inclined his raven-black head, his face calm. "And your companions, save for Herr Bernhardt and Father Etienne, shall undoubtedly go with you?"

Etienne’s eyebrows went up, and Margerite saw his long fingers tighten on the slim hilt of his eating-dagger. "Your Grace, I had thought to go with the Grafin as well," the canon broke in. I have been her confessor for some time, and ...."

"You are needed too badly here," Bishop Otto said, his deep voice quiet, but ringing with authority. "I have not dealt with the Inquisition among my flock before, nor am I the man who can explain these dire matters to them. I am sure that these two noble knights" -- his brief smile flicked over Gottfried and Arnmut -- "and this brave young Knappe can see to the Grafin’s bodily safety, while there are many holy shrines among the way which can tend to her soul."

Etienne frowned, his lower lip thin and pale as if he were biting it to keep his words back. Of course: he could not speak to the Bishop about Christoph’s possession, nor was there any plausible urgency which would override his need to stay in Niederwald and await the Inquisitors who would examine Ortlieb’s dreadful baggage and ask their questions of Hedwig and Oda -- if the Order Princess? assistants lived long enough to be interrogated.

O dear Maria, Margerite thought, if only I had not spoken so quickly! Now I must go back without Father Etienne; and having failed against Christoph’s demon once, it will be sure of its strength against me. The scabbed wound down Georg’s cheek stood out raw and livid against his sudden pallor as he, too, realized what the Bishop’s words must mean, and Eva brushed the sign of the Cross swiftly over herself. Bernhardt was frowning as well; only Gottfried and Arnmut, who had not seen the demon for themselves, and had been chafing quietly since hearing what had come to pass in Burg Furstensee while they were gone, looked eager to set out.

"Your Grace," Margerite said, "though I had not forgotten about the Inquisition, that brings me to another question. I am surely likely to be called as a witness: though I am eager to be home, I would not leave what I have done unfinished, for the sake of all those whom Ortlieb’s evil harmed. Should I, then, stay here until the matter is finished with?"

Bishop Otto looked at Father Etienne. "Etienne, you know the Inquisitorial procedure well. Shall they, do you think, require the Grafin’s presence at once upon their arrival, or is the case likely to be drawn out for some months?"

Father Etienne’s mouth worked as though he were swallowing down the aftertaste of a bitter morsel: Margerite could guess that what he wanted to say and the truth he must tell the Bishop might not be the same thing. "The Inquisition does not move swiftly, for the power vested in them and the grave matters with which they deal requires the greatest caution, that the strength meant for good does not do evil in its haste. There may well be much for them to do before Grafin Margerite is called in to give her testimony: that will almost certainly take place towards the end of their investigation."

The Bishop smiled heartily at Margerite. "Then, Grafin, you are free to go home as you please! Do have some more of the goose; it is by no means gluttony for a woman who is nursing a strong son to eat as well as she can, especially when feasting in the honour of such a saint as the holy Martin."