Free Kindle Nation Shorts -- January 25, 2012
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In This Issue
About the Author: J.K. Swift
KINDLE FIRE Giveaway Sweepstakes!
Three More for Kindle by J.K. Swift
An Excerpt from ALTDORF by J.K. Swift

 About theAuthor:  J.K. Swift

 

J.K. Swift
 

 

J. K. Swift lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of "The Forest Knights" novels, which are set in medieval Switzerland. 

 

He is also an award-winning short story writer.

 

He has worked as a school teacher, jailhouse guard, Japanese translator, log peeler, accountant, martial arts instructor, massage therapist, technical editor, and has called a few Bingo games.

 

He gets his story ideas while traveling in Europe and wandering aimlessly along the streets and beaches of the Pacific Northwest.  

 

 

  

 

 

 

   

 

 

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Altdorf

An Excerpt from

Altdorf

 

(The Forest Knights)

 

by J.K. Swift

Journey back in time to medieval Switzerland in today's 17,000-word Free Kindle Nation Short to meet the forest knights and a former commander of hospitaller soldiers as well as a Druid priestess.

 

They are caught in a struggle set in motion by Duke Leopold of Habsburg, who is intent on completing his fortress controlling the St. Gotthard Pass, despite the hardships placed on the people.  The struggle begins.

 

  

  by J.K. Swift

4.4 Stars  -  8 Reviews

 

 

Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

 

Click here to begin reading the free excerpt

 

Here's the set-up:

 

ALTDORF, a novel of The Forest Knights

A wild land too mountainous to be tamed by plows...

A Duke of the Holy Roman Empire, his cunning overshadowed only by his ambition...

A young Priestess of the Old Religion, together with a charismatic outlaw, sparking a rebellion from deep within the forests...

And an ex-Hospitaller caught between them all.

"Re-imagining the William Tell legend-without William Tell."

At the end of the thirteenth century, five hundred orphans and second sons are rounded up from villages in the Alpine countryside and sold to the Hospitaller Knights of St John. Trained to serve as Soldiers of Christ, they fight in eastern lands they know nothing about, for a cause they do not understand.

Thomas Schwyzer, released from his vows by the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers, returns to the land of his birth a stranger. Once a leader of men, and captain of the Order's most famous war galley, he now settles into the simple life of a ferryman. He believes this new role to be God's reward for years of faithful service fighting the Infidel in Outremer.

Seraina, considered a witch by most, a healer by some, is a young woman with a purpose. A Priestess of the Old Religion, and the last Druid disciple of the Helvetii Celts, she has been gifted by the Great Weave to see what others cannot. Her people need her guidance and protection now more than ever. For Duke Leopold of Habsburg, in his efforts to control the St. Gotthard Pass, builds a great Austrian fortress in Altdorf. Once finished, the Habsburg occupation will be complete, but the atrocities visited upon her people will have just begun.

Set in medieval Switzerland, ALTDORF, a novel of The Forest Knights, is the first book in a two-book series.

76,000 words

 

From the reviewers:

 

This was a terrific book! It has got knights, sword fights, druids, damsels, and heros who stand up for justice for their people. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish it I found it to be a complex story line and, after looking up some of the actual historical characters I found that the book portrayed historical characters and settings accurately within the framework of the fictional story. - Rachel Ellen

Someone has done their homework! The research and detail into the history and setting of this book is outstanding. And that detail is fit into the story without slowing the story down or making the book feel dry. The story itself is a fun and believable tale (with fantasy elements, but still believable) of medieval Switzerland under foreign occupation, and soldiers returning from crusade but not being able to avoid another battle. - Corie J. Weaver


 

Altdorf

 Altdorf

  

By J.K. Swift

            

  

 

  

 

  

 

Visit Amazon's J.K. Swift Page

  

  

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Three More for Kindle
By J.K. Swift


Excerpt    

Free Kindle Nation Shorts - January 25, 2012 

 

An Excerpt from

Altdorf

( The Forest Knights)

By

J.K. Swift

Copyright © 2012 by  J.K. Swift and published here with his permission


 

 

 

Prologue

 

       "WHAT WILL you do with all this coin?" Foulques de Villaret, Knight Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John asked as he dropped two large bags on the slab-carved table worn smooth from years of use.

The village hall in Schwyz was small, but had a peaked roofline and thick post and beam framework that slotted into itself seamlessly. Although simple, it gave off an aura of permanence. The builders had left the interior walls plain and unadorned, yet so much care had gone into selecting the best natural materials from the surrounding forest that only the finest of tapestries could have improved the simple décor.

The room could accommodate fifty villagers standing shoulder to shoulder, but today it held only five. One woman and three men sat behind the long trestle table at the front of the hall. The villagers were all younger than forty, but those years had not been kind. Their clothing of worn, homespun wool and brown callused hands marked them as farmers, while their knobby limbs and sunken eyes hinted at a hard existence in a densely forested land too mountainous to be tamed by ploughs.

The woman did not look at the heavy bags in front of her. She stared at the young knight, her hard eyes searching his face, daring him to judge her or the men who sat at her side.

"We mean to buy animals for our people. Sheep, goats, pigs. Maybe a few oxen. We hope it will give us enough to breed more stock," she said.

Foulques de Villaret shook his head. He was a powerfully built man wearing a black surcoat with a large white cross on his chest; a thigh-length chainmail hauberk glistened beneath. As the white cross contrasted against his black clothing, so too did his ice-blue eyes jump out against a mass of wild hair and a full beard of darkness.

"You could buy much more than a few beasts with that gold. Perhaps you should count it and make sure the sum."

The woman's husband, a gangly man, shifted on his hard stool and exhaled. He stroked the ridge of his brow with his thumbs as he fixed an unfocused gaze on the bags of coin.

"There is no need," he said. "You are a Hospitaller Knight and our people are poor. Your Order's oath to care for the poor and sick is the very reason we chose your brethren over the other orders fighting in the Holy Lands. We believe you mean to honor that oath and treat with us fairly. Did you know, Sir Foulques, the Templar Knights offered half again the number of coins before us?"

De Villaret nodded and corrected him. "Brother Foulques. I relinquished my title and possessions when I joined the Order."

Just as the Templars kept an ever-watchful eye on their rivals the Hospitallers, there was not much the Knights of Saint John did not know about the Templars' activities. In the war against the Saracen infidels in Outremer, a world away across the Mid-Earth Sea, de Villaret had been witness to more suffering and cruelty than most sane men could bear. But flesh and blood enemies were not to blame for the pain etched in these villagers' faces.

Yes, the Austrian ruling family, the Habsburgs, taxed these lands to help support their armies scattered throughout Europe, but the land was so poor it contributed no more than a pittance to the treasury. The real hardships came from the land itself. Carving farmland out of the forested mountain slopes only resulted in stunted crops that struggled through the long winters and short growing season to a single harvest, if any.

De Villaret felt the woman's eyes on him, searching, assessing. Attempting by force of will alone to draw out and reveal his innermost flaws, picking at them like a loose thread to see if he would unravel. Was he a man to be trusted? He shifted his weight, his black hair bunching about his shoulders, and addressed the villagers seated before him, making a conscious effort to look at the woman as he spoke.

"It is not a simple thing you do, but rest assured you have chosen wisely in putting your faith in my order, and in God."

The woman stood so quickly her chair shot out behind her and toppled to the floor, causing everyone to jump, including the young knight.

"Desperation is not faith," she said, leveling a thin finger at de Villaret. "We put no faith in you or your kind-only in our own people." She jerked her head towards the door, her eyes never leaving his face. "Go now, before we come to our senses."

Upon becoming a Knight of the Order of Saint John, besides taking vows of chastity and poverty, de Villaret had sworn to accept the poor as his lords. But being born into a noble French family, he was unaccustomed to being dismissed by a peasant, nevertheless a woman. He hesitated and looked to the other men. Their downward cast eyes told him who held sway in these lands.

He willed his clenched hands to unfold.

It mattered not. He had what he wanted. He bowed his head, ever so slightly, and without a word strode to the exit, his chainmail making a metallic rustle. He threw open the door and stepped out into the summer's early morning light.

The quiet was disconcerting, unnatural, for it should have been deafening.

Spread before him, overflowing the town square, were five hundred children lined up in flawless marching formation. They varied in age from five to thirteen-years-old. All orphans or second sons sold by their families or villages. Fifteen of de Villaret's fellow Hospitallers, knights clad in the same black surcoats and cloaks, and grizzled sergeant men-at-arms dressed in brown, all with white crosses displayed on the chest, were interspersed amongst the orderly group. The few men stood out like giants as they were head and shoulders above even their tallest charges.

Without a backwards glance into the village hall, de Villaret strode to take his place at the front of the column, next to a knight leading a string of pack mules, aware with every step that the woman's eyes were still locked upon him. Burning, boring deep into his being.

The column began its long winding journey toward Saint Gotthard's Pass. It was the fastest route de Villaret could take to cross the treacherous Alps, jagged abominations the Devil himself had placed in the middle of Europe in his continuous efforts to divide faithful Christians. Eventually, God willing, they would descend into northern Italia, and make their way to Genoa and the shores of the Mid-Earth Sea. There, he would load his new charges onto ships and set sail for the Holy Land.

He glanced over his shoulder and took in his army of children stretched along the narrow road as far as the eye could see. These were no common slaves he had purchased. Every child was dressed in a new cloak and laden with the best traveling gear their families or villages could afford. Although, in most cases, that accounted for little more than an eating knife and a walking stick, perhaps new shoes for some. The children were still fresh and bore the difficulties of the road well. But that would change soon enough.

May the Good Lord protect us all.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

LIKE SHEPHERDS FROM HELL, the demons drove their flock of evil spirits and twisted minions over the Alps far into the valleys below, spreading disease, insanity, and chaos. The only warning of their approach was the föhn, a warm, dry wind that preceded the horde's arrival. It was not superstition or myth to the locals, but simply an event that occurred a scattering of times every year, and the föhn in the late winter of 1314 was longer and warmer than any could remember.

At first, as the warm breeze reduced great banks of snow to puddles, it was a welcome respite to a hard winter. But as the air continued to warm and the moisture was wicked out of the countryside, throats dried out, and animals became uneasy. Once the people recognized it for a föhn, the wise ones hastened to the safety of their homes to latch their shutters and bar the doors.

They knew what chased the wind.

Erich felt ill at ease, but he could not be sure whether the cause was the föhn or the six horsemen that had appeared with it. He had shadowed them from the woods for the past hour.

Their mounts were great long-legged beasts, with heads held high and chins tucked in; not the sturdy mountain ponies that fared better in this land of hills and steep mountain passes. At first he thought they might be soldiers on patrol to Einsiedeln, or one of the other wealthy monasteries in the area under protection of the Holy Roman Empire, but they were not dressed like any Austrians Erich had ever seen.

Unlike the heavy wool and sackcloth garments Erich had on, the riders wore layers of simple dark clothing of lightweight fabrics, the likes of which Erich had never seen. In addition, each man wore a black chainmail shirt, the mesh so fine and light, it seemed more a vest than armor.

A single one of the mail shirts would fetch a price large enough to keep a family in these parts fed for years. But first it would need to be removed from the man wearing it, and that, Erich knew through experience and by looking at the weapons each man wore at his side, could only be accomplished one way.

He waved to a man concealed in the woods a hundred yards up the road, who in turn, relayed the signal to more men hiding beyond a bend in the road ahead.

Brigands. Highwaymen. Desperate men turned predators, who singled out the weak to provide for their own existence. Now in his late twenties, Erich had made his life amongst men such as these for nearly fifteen years. His band of almost thirty men was one of the most lucrative gangs working the road leading north out of Saint Gotthard's Pass. Traffic had been good of late, and by targeting nobles with insufficient escorts, the occasional small trade caravan, and local peasants as poor as the raiders themselves, Erich's group managed a comfortable existence, unlike most in the settlements surrounding the Great Lake.

But they never ascended far up into the pass. The craggy peaks were the domain of demons, and were to be avoided lest one risk the corruption of his soul. And, besides, there was no profit to be had on the other side.

A number of years past the Duke of Milan had purchased the area and built a great fortification, the Castelgrande, which sat atop a rock bluff overlooking the southern approach to the Saint Gotthard Pass. Regular patrols from the castle had almost eliminated all banditry in the valleys on the south side of the pass. However, once the merchants managed the winding climb from the narrow valley floor out of the tree line and over the barren summit, which was covered in snow eight months of the year, they were in Austrian lands, and there were no longer any Milanese patrols to protect them. Austrian patrols were rarely seen this far south.

It was this pass that the six men had recently climbed, and they now rode slowly, relaxed. The weary slump to their shoulders told of a great distance traveled. Although tired of the road, they exchanged easy banter and laughed often, with one man standing out by his immense size.

Clean-shaven and blonde, he sat astride one of the largest horses Erich had ever seen; yet the animal seemed no more than a pony the way the man's legs dangled around its torso. He talked non-stop, emphasizing his words and laughter with grand gestures from his brazier-sized hands.

The fair-haired man was such a spectacle that Erich was surprised to find his attention always drifting to the darker man riding beside him. Though he appeared small compared to the giant, Erich could tell he was taller than most men. He wore his chestnut brown, neck-length hair untied, and although beardless, his face was darkly stubbled, except for the area that a long, jagged scar passed through. The thick, pale tissue started under the man's left eye and ran down his face in a graceful curve to fold over the line of his jaw.

He led a riderless spare horse, two hands taller than his own, saddled and ready to be mounted. On his belt he wore a long knife, and hanging off his saddle was a mace with a heavy flanged head. His movements were relaxed and his eyes never once left the road ahead to search the woods on either side, but there was an uneasiness about the way the man sat straight in his saddle that bothered Erich.

Erich scanned the woods for his three hidden archers. He could not see them but he knew they would be ready. Around the bend ahead the road narrowed with thick stands of pine on either side. At his signal, he and his archers would open fire on the horsemen from the rear and then the bulk of his men would emerge from the woods to chase them, leaving the riders with no option but to flee straight up the road. More men would be waiting with ropes stretched across the road that would unhorse the men from their galloping mounts. It was a tried and true system that had passed many a test.

Erich nocked a noisemaker arrow to his bowstring, aimed into the sky, and let fly. A piercing whistle shrilled through the air. Seconds passed-nothing happened.

Where are my archers? A sinking feeling sifted through him and settled in his guts. Something was wrong.

He scanned the woods to see twenty of his men scrambling out of the trees, shouting and screaming as they charged up the road towards the six horsemen. For bandits, they were well armed with heavy clubs or decent swords taken from previous conquests. Some wore unmatched pieces of armor, usually leather, but the occasional gleam of chainmail could be spotted when one of the intermittent patches of sunlight found it through the trees.

Erich tried to wave them off but to no avail. They were too caught up with adrenalin and bloodlust to spot him in the foliage as they rushed by, each man mindlessly intent on being the first to reach the victims.

At the sound of the screams from behind, the six horsemen turned their mounts and formed up in a single line, the road just wide enough to accommodate all of the large horses. Their movements were precise and unhurried. As one, they drew their weapons. The tall man said something and held his mace high into the air. He turned his head and looked directly to Erich's hiding spot; his features obscured by the forest's shadows save for the long pale line, which even at this distance, seemed to pulsate with a cool white light.

He reined in the riderless destrier close to his side with one hand, and lowered his mace in the other to point at the attackers running up the road. The horsemen seemed to merge together into a single, multi-headed beast as they began to trot ahead, each man's knees close enough to touch the man's next to him. Then, as one, the great warhorses leapt into a full gallop.

Destriers bred and trained for this very situation, they snorted with excitement as they gathered speed and charged through the band of brigands as though they were nothing more than tall blades of grass. Men screamed as they tried to dive out of the path of the frenzied animals. Bodies were blown aside like leaves in a maelstrom; bones snapped, shoulders dislocated, and chests caved in under the heavy iron-shod hooves. Once through the tangled maze of bodies, the riders turned their mounts with their legs and formed up for another charge.

The road was littered with men on hands and knees, some still and lifeless, others groaning, crawling, trying to pull themselves to the safety of the woods. Those that were fortunate enough to have avoided the charge stood on trembling legs, their eyes darting from their trampled comrades to the demons on horseback readying their mounts for another charge.

The horsemen were only twenty yards from Erich now. He stood and nocked an arrow. The tall man held his hand high again as the warhorses snorted and pawed at the earth. Erich took aim at the leader's throat and pulled his bowstring back.

"Hold," came a whisper so close to Erich's ear he felt the word's heat. A sharp point contacted the back of his neck and he felt the coolness of blood trickle from the scratch.

"Lower the bow and let that shaft fall to the ground," the voice said softly.

The riderless horse.

Erich grimaced. There were seven-he had led his men into a trap. Erich's back muscles trembled with exertion as he eased back the string and dropped the weapon. The arrow slithered beneath a tangle of scrub still brown from the winter snows, and disappeared.

He turned slowly to see a mahogany-bearded man pointing a small crossbow at his face and holding another larger one at his side. His hair was cut short but the reddish brown beard was braided into a fork that reached down to his upper chest. The man lightly pressed the point against Erich's forehead.

"It may be small, but it will tear a hole clear through your head, boy. In fact this bolt is under so much pressure, and the tickler so touchy, it goes off by itself sometimes. Stay very still."

He raised the other heavier crossbow, took his eyes off Erich for a moment to sight down its length, and shot one of Erich's men standing forty yards away through the chest. With a pop, the bolt spread apart the man's chainmail like thin spring ice and embedded itself far into his chest, the leather vanes on the back end of the shaft all but disappearing.

He turned to Erich and said, "Walk."

On the road the horsemen began their second charge. A few unwise bandits raised their swords and tried to sidestep the horses but were cut down by the riders' weapons. Most fled into the trees, as did the others further up the road that came from around the bend to see what the screaming was all about. In minutes it was over.

The bearded man marched Erich through the trees. They passed Erich's three archers crumpled in the underbrush, lying in pools of their own blood with their throats cut. One of them still in his teens. Erich knew the circuitous route back to the road was taken solely for his benefit. He fought to push down the guilt building inside.

 

***

 

Thomas took a slow drink from a water skin and then rotated his mace arm to work out the throbbing in his shoulder. The ligaments had been stretched one too many times, but he refused to admit he needed a lighter weapon. He watched Ruedi march his captive out of the trees and force him down hard on his knees in front of the small group of men.

"This one is the leader," Ruedi murmured through his forked beard.

Thomas nodded, his dark eyes narrowing. He appeared tall because of his lean, wiry build, but he was still a full head shorter than Pirmin Schnidrig, the fair-haired titan of a man standing next to him.

"Just a kid," Pirmin said, his words strongly accented.

"Old enough to put a knife in your back if you show it to him," came another voice. Hermann Gissler, an angular man bordering on gaunt, with small eyes and black hair greying at the temples, strode forward and put the tip of his long sword in the middle of Erich's chest. "Do we hang him? Or spare the tree, and run him through now?"

"Not worth the rope," said Urs, a short, stocky man with forearms thickened by years at the forge. "Let us take him to Schwyz and turn him over to the Vogt. Judging from the size of his band they must have been quite active in this area. Might be a reward."

"Waste of time," Gissler said shaking his head. "He will only slow us down, and no village in these lands has money for a reward. Besides, they would just hang him anyway."

Thomas gave his sore shoulder a hard squeeze to get the blood moving, and looked at the dead men littering the road. He turned to the man on his knees, who looked straight ahead, head held high and eyes unseeing. A small crucifix hung from the man's neck.

He was healthy and better fed than the few people they had seen since crossing the Gotthard, nevertheless, his eyes showed no hope. He had the look of a man who knew he was going to die. And perhaps that is what he deserved. Thomas had no way of knowing how many innocent deaths this man was responsible for, and he did not care.

He had, of course, killed Christians before. But they had always been a threat in some way to the Christian Kingdom in Outremer; Saracen spies, or lowly mercenaries loyal to God only until the gold ran out. But here, in this cold valley, hidden in the shadows of rocky peaks so high and numerous you could ride for hours without seeing the sun, it felt different. Senseless. As though God had no interest in how the lives of these people played out.

"We let him go," he said.

Gissler looked at Thomas, eyes wide in disbelief. "We might not spot him next time. To show his appreciation for the mercy you have shown, he will put a quarrel in your back first chance he gets."

"You confuse mercy with indifference. We are God's soldiers, chosen by Our Lord to protect those who follow the one true faith. This man wears the cross at his neck. It is not our place to discipline half-starved ruffians."

He looked at the brigand, whose eyes had come alive and were darting side to side with a newfound hope that he may not be killed.

"You forget Thomas, we no longer fight in His army," Gissler said. His mouth moved to say more but he stopped himself.

"Bind him to a tree. By the time someone sets him free, we will be hours away," Thomas said. His tone left no room for debate.

Gissler narrowed his eyes but lowered his sword. He knew there was no point arguing with Thomas once he decided on a course of action. But then he brightened, as a new solution presented itself in his mind.

In one fluid motion he reversed the grip on his sword, stepped in and slammed the pommel into Erich's forehead. Stunned, Erich fell forward and reached out his hands to catch himself on the ground. Gissler whipped the blade onto Erich's right hand, cleanly severing away half of his first three fingers. The sword clanged as the steel made contact with the rocky ground, and just as swiftly, Gissler wiped and resheathed his blade.

Erich screamed and pulled his hand into himself, curling up into a ball.

"No need to waste rope on his likes. He will not be any good with a bow for the rest of his miserable life," Gissler said, his mouth turning up slightly.

Ruedi leaned on his larger crossbow and laughed. "Gissler the problem solver," he said, shaking his head. "Of course he could still use one of these," he said holding up his small crossbow with one hand.

Thomas let out a breath and stared at Gissler, but said nothing. It was not his fault. The others stood around drinking water, checking their weapons, or comforting their mounts. No one was surprised by Gissler's sudden action for they were all men shaped by a lifetime of war, Thomas included. It was, after all, common practice to cut off the fingers of enemy archer captives.

Finally, Anton, a small man with several earrings in his right ear who had taken to wearing perfume and bathing as frequently as the Saracens, wandered over to the writhing form on the ground and skillfully tied off the man's fingers, stemming the flow of blood. Then he began gathering kindling for a fire.

"It will not take me long to cauterize this mess. Go on ahead-I will catch you soon enough," he said to Thomas.

"Once you are done, take a moment for those on the road," Thomas said. "No man should die unshriven, but since they did not unburden their souls in confession, I am afraid a blessing is the best we can do. We leave them to God's mercy."

"Yes, Captain," Anton said. His face paled briefly as he contemplated the horrors of facing his maker with an unshriven soul, and then he remembered the groaning man at his feet who was still alive. "Max, leave me some of your kirsch."

Max, a barrel-chested man with a sour face and hair more grey than black, balked at Anton's request. "Get your own-this is one of my best batches. Who knows when I will have the means to make more?"

"Oh calm yourself. Soon you will have all the cherries you want. You are back in the land of kirsch, remember?"

Grumbling, Max rooted through his saddlebag filled with packets of saffron, turmeric, pepper, and other exotic spices he had hoarded and brought from the east. It was worth a small fortune in the right hands, and if he remembered correctly, his family in Zug had connections with buyers. He found a small flask of one of the poorer quality cherry alcohol batches he had distilled himself and tossed it to Anton.

"That should be for drinking, not burning," he said.

"Was hoping to hear that," Anton said. He popped out the stopper and took a long swig, grimacing as the hard alcohol burned its way down. Then he roughly pulled Erich up to a sitting position and forced the young man to drink a few mouthfuls. He coughed and sputtered, but managed to keep most of it down.

Max turned his back in disgust.

The men mounted up leaving Anton building his fire in the middle of the road amidst a handful of motionless corpses. Erich moaned beside him, cradling his stumped fingers.

They resumed their traveling pace. By nightfall the party would be in the village of Schwyz, where they would split up and go their separate ways. After so many years together this weighed heavily in the thoughts of each man, but with no desire to speak of it, they rode mostly in silence.

"I hate to say it, but Gissler was right Thomi," Pirmin finally said in his melodic Wallis accent. "We should have made an example of the leader and left him twisting at the end of a rope."

The way he sung his words made even a hanging sound like a cheery event. He came from the Matterhorn area and everything about the man was big, from his almost seven foot frame to the custom-made, eight-foot long battle-ax he carried. He was larger than life; an oversized blonde Adonis, both terrifying and beautiful to behold, and he was Thomas's closest friend.

"A year ago you would not have taken any chances with that outlaw. I fear you are getting soft. As usual God only knows what is rattlin' around in that head of yours."

Thomas first looked slowly at the thick woods, patches of snow still visible at the bases of most trees, and then higher up at the white-peaked Alps surrounding them on every side. He could not recall any particular memories of this road, but breathing the clear air and taking in the majestic scenery of the Alps stirred up a warm, comforting feeling that was at the same time both new and familiar.

Strange, he thought. There was no reason for him to have any feelings for this land. Unlike the others he rode with, he had almost no memories of family here. None that still lived, that is. He did not even know his true last name. For that matter, when he thought about it, he only knew two of the men's original last names. For the purpose of making record keeping matters simple, the Hospitallers gave all the boys from the alpine areas the same last name: Schwyzer, meaning 'one from Schwyz'. The boys were forbidden to use any other last name. Hermann Gissler refused to surrender his family name. He got around the rules by telling the monks his first name was Gissler. As for Pirmin Schnidrig, well the monks tried to beat his last name out of him, but that only made him all the more determined to make sure everyone knew he was a Schnidrig.

"Not soft. Just tired. I think I am getting too old to be one of God's soldiers," Thomas said.

Pirmin laughed and rolled his eyes. "Thomi, you were an old man when you were five."

This made Thomas grin just enough that he could feel the scar tissue tighten and resist along the length of his face.

His saddle leather creaked as he twisted and looked behind them. A thin tendril of smoke rose above the trees from Anton's fire in the distance.

He turned back to the road ahead and wondered what God had in store for him. He had been a leader of men and a war galley's captain for twelve years, a soldier of the One Faith for over twenty. Almost a year ago to the day, Grand Master de Villaret had said, "Gather the Schwyzers, Thomas, those who remain, and take them home. This is the last order I shall give you."

In a few short hours, that order would be fulfilled.

They rode on in silence, and no one looked back when the brigand leader screamed long and hard, like he was being dragged away by the furies of hell.

 

***

 

Seraina was leaning against a young oak, listening to the wind, when she heard the far-off scream reverberate gently through the woods and drift up to where she stood. She opened her pine-needle green eyes and stood up straight; her long, auburn hair sticking to the bark of the oak as though the tree were reluctant to give her up. Although it came from miles away, she could hear the scream because she stood at the edge of a clearing shadowed by the towering presence of the Mythen.

The Mythen were two mountains, standing side-by-side, one taller with the upper reaches treeless and jagged, while the shorter one had a mane of green running up the side closest to its companion. They jutted out of the earth with a statement; distinct from the low-lying hills surrounding them, their pyramidal shapes too grand and symmetrical to be ordinary. They were sentries of the ancient world, forgotten now by most, and although their rock surfaces had been ground down and large pieces had sloughed off over the millennia, they were not without power.

Seraina came to this place often to visit the Mythen, and in return for her company, they helped her listen to the wind. The wind guided her thoughts and through them, her actions. Without the voice of the wind she would be lost, her place in the Great Weave unknown.

But the messages were never clear, and today's bordered on cryptic. She had not yet seen thirty harvests, a child in the eyes of the elders. Seraina cursed her youth and lack of wisdom for not being able to discern the exact message, but just as quickly she thanked the Mythen for bringing her what they could. This day, laced together with the sound of human suffering, the warm wind whispered its message over and over. Her heart pounded in her ears.

The Catalyst's time was near.

 

 

Chapter 2

Salzburg

 

 

THE HABSBURG FOOL was a stringy gnome of a man, easily twice Leopold's twenty-four years but little more than half his height. He wore no hat but his purple hair was cut short and plastered to his head in a star pattern. His frilly tunic was black on the left and white on the right, while his tights were the opposite. Yellow, pointed, soft-leather shoes completed the ensemble. When Leopold approached, the Fool made a flourishing gesture with his arms and bowed to the young Duke before thrusting open the double doors to the council chambers. At the last second he stepped in front of Leopold and strutted ahead to escort him into the large room, the soft tinkling of bells on the Fool's pointed shoes marking every step.

The sound had infuriated Leopold since childhood, for somehow the Fool had complete control over the loudness and intensity of the bells and, Leopold felt, used them purposely to mock him. He could walk without making a sound when he wanted to, for despite being a garish entertainer, the Fool had always been by King Albrecht's side when he was alive and could in fact blend in when he so wished. Since the King's assassination the previous year, the Fool had attached himself to Frederick, Leopold's older brother by a year, and who now sat at the head of an ornate rectangular table in the council room.

Frederick smiled and held up a hand in greeting as his brother entered, relief etched deep in his face. Seated around him were eight older men, the advisors to his late father, but unlike Frederick, not one of them looked pleased at the entrance of the younger Habsburg Duke.

"The fool has arrived!" the jester announced.

Leopold shot him an angry glare and imagined what it would feel like to have his hands around the insufferable creature's throat, shaking him until the only sound that escaped was the tinkling of those cursed chimes.

"Welcome brother, we are happy you could join us on such short notice." Frederick 'the Handsome', as he was called, came around the table and the two brothers embraced. Only a year separated them but they looked nothing alike. Leopold was fair haired and willowy in build while Frederick was dark and stocky, like their father had been. Most women would not say Frederick was any more 'handsome' than Leopold, but there was a beatific honesty in his smile that made people feel comfortable. When under Leopold's bold stare on the other hand, people were never at ease. He had his mother's sharp features: glistening blue eyes and a high-bridged raptorial nose.

Six of the men were nobles of prestigious Austrian houses, powerful members of the German Empire, but Leopold's sudden presence made many of them shift in their seats. His open disdain for his father's advisors was well known. He trusted none of them and felt sick when he thought of his brother in this room alone with these carrion eaters. He made a point of looking at each man and noting who met his eyes and who seemed surprised to see him here. The few who met his eyes quickly looked away, but that in and of itself was not a measure of guilt.

The Archbishop was seated to one side of Frederick along with a simpler dressed monk Leopold had never before seen. Though he wore the robe of a Dominican, his face had the smugness of a merchant.

"Forgive my lateness brother. I should have liked to be here sooner but the messenger bearing your summons was waylaid on the road some miles from Habsburg Castle." Leopold let his eyes wander over the nobles, openly accusing anyone who met his stare.

Count Henri of Hunenberg, a veteran knight in his late forties who was renowned for spending much of his family's fortune on several campaigns to the Holy Lands, shook his head and said, "This is further evidence of what I spoke-even the roads in the Aargau are no longer safe since so many of our soldiers were sent north. We must have more patrols to ensure the safety of messengers and merchants. And from what the Archbishop here tells us, the monks of Einsiedeln also require enforcers in their pastures near Schwyz."

"Ridiculous," Otto, the late King Albrecht's grey-haired military adviser grunted. "Louis the Bavarian openly defies Frederick's tutelage and is marshaling his forces as we speak. We must maintain a show of force in the north. Only war will decide the German kingship now. I must be granted direct control of the Sturmritter if Habsburg rule is to prevail."

Leopold looked at Otto, shocked by the old general's cunning. No one understood Otto better than Leopold, for Otto had been his principal tutor growing up. King Albrecht had recognized the natural gifts of his children; Frederick, with his easy smile, was the natural politician, but in Leopold he had seen the future Marshal of the Habsburg armies, and his father had seen to his education accordingly.

Otto had just made his play for control of the most fearsome fighting force in all of Europe. The Stormriders were a cavalry force created by Leopold's grandfather, the first Habsburger to become King of the Germans. He had assembled the top fighting men in Europe, provided them with the best horses and equipment, and granted them their own castle from which they would serve the Habsburg rulers. They were full-time warriors and the highest paid knights in the known world. Competition to join the Sturmritter was intense and every year men died during the fierce tournaments that served as auditions for young men seeking to earn fame and a place amongst the elite.

Otto openly stared at Frederick, demanding a response, but before Frederick could say anything, Leopold spoke up. "I am afraid that is impossible, Lord Otto. The Sturmritter are suppressing a revolt in Schwabia at the moment."

Otto eyed Leopold with an odd mix of loathing and pride. "A peasant revolt. Hardly a situation to warrant the use of the Sturmritter."

"But a strategic location that is crucial to Austria. When they are finished their work in Schwabia I am sure my brother will make them available to your cause, if they are still required. In the meantime, surely all the soldiers of Austria, under your unfailing leadership, shall be sufficient to deal with Louis the Bavarian."

Leopold turned quickly from Otto before he could reply and addressed his brother directly. "Frederick, I need to speak with you on a topic of the utmost importance. Family matters."

Frederick caught Leopold's hidden meaning, and ignoring the frustrated looks of the nobles in the room, gestured for his brother to follow him out the door. "Of course. Let us take a recess. Gentlemen, excuse us if you would."

They walked down the stone corridor to a smaller receiving room at the end of the hall. Fresh rushes covered the stone floor and a fire burned in the hearth, while a thick layer of smoke hovered, trapped near the top of the twelve-foot ceiling. Leopold reached to close the heavy door behind them, and was startled to see the Fool about to follow them in.

Leopold held out his arm. "You can stay out there. I've seen enough of your painted face for one day," he said and threw the door shut before the smiling little man could set even one of his pointed shoes over the threshold.

"You have news of the assassin? Has he been found?" Frederick asked, unable to contain himself a second more.

"I do have news of our cousin's whereabouts, but it is only a tip-nothing more. I was on my way to investigate when I heard you were to meet with the nobles alone."

Frederick placed his hand on his brother's shoulder and let out a long breath. The tension in him eased somewhat.

"And I am thankful you are here. Word is the German Princes are favoring Louis for the throne and our supporters are calling for an immediate show of force. But how can I march on Louis? He has been our friend since childhood."

"It is not Louis, but the Princes who are behind this. They fear Habsburg power-it has always been so. It was the same when our father came to power. He was not given the kingship, but had to take it, and now brother, you must do the same."

Frederick dropped into one of the intricately carved wooden chairs in front of the fire. "How goes work on the Altdorf citadel?"

Leopold grunted. "It is little more than a mound of rubble at the moment. Certainly not a citadel. I need more workers. Speaking of which, I do not suppose..."

"If I had men to spare they would be readying for battle, I am afraid," Frederick said. "Not playing with stone and mallet."

Leopold's jaw clenched, starting a tremor in the muscles under his cheekbones.

"Traffic over the Gotthard Pass doubles every month with the recent improvements the Milanese have made on the Devil's bridge over the Reuss. The Gotthard is now the fastest way for all Mediterranean merchants to traverse the Alps and trade with the Hanseatic League. Both the King of France and the Duke of Milan are scheming for its control. Protecting Habsburg land from their hungry eyes is hardly playing, brother."

Frederick let out a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He let his chin momentarily dip to his chest.

"Forgive me, Leo. I am tired. I do not have the patience for these games. You should have been born the elder."

Leopold forced a laugh, but in truth a chill went through him at the thought of being King of the Holy Roman Empire. Having to deal with advisers and petty petitions from nobles and commoners alike, always in the midst of the conniving German princes. No, that was not a position to covet. "Nonsense. I work better behind the lines. You know that."

"I wish father were still alive. I can understand our cousin for feeling slighted, deprived even, of his inheritance, but to go so far as to plan the assassination of the King? For the love of Christ I cannot see what drove him to it."

"Evil can be found in all men's hearts if you look deep enough," Leopold said.

"Father was a great man. Even the Jews would admit as much. But something in him changed when Rudolph died. I know you felt it too."

Leopold knew exactly what Frederick meant. King Albrecht had had three sons. The oldest was Rudolph and it had been no secret that he was the King's favorite. After many years of scheming and brilliant politics, Albrecht had secured the throne of Bohemia for his son Rudolph. Unfortunately, barely a year into his reign, Rudolph succumbed to a fever and died.

With the death of his eldest son, the aging Albrecht's mind had come unhinged. Not all at once, in an obvious way, but to those closest to him, especially his sons Frederick and Leopold, the changes were readily apparent. He became forgetful, drank wine in the evenings, something he had forbidden his own sons to do, and appeared less frequently at the local courts he had fought so hard to establish during his reign.

Near the end, he would not be seen for days, and when he did appear, he was frequently in his cups. And then, one afternoon while crossing the Reuss River, he was attacked and killed by his nephew John and three fellow conspirators. The bloated bodies of John's accomplices were found days later miles downstream but somehow John 'the Parricide' managed to escape the wrath of Albrecht's sons and fled into hiding. Claiming Frederick had enough to worry about with being the head of the Habsburg family, and potentially the new Emperor of the Germans, Leopold had declared he would take it upon himself to find John and bring him to justice.

"You must be strong in this hour," Leopold said. "All eyes are on you now, and if the princes see weakness you will never be elected to the throne. But more importantly, you cannot trust any of those nobles in the other room. They stand with you only because they need your strength to protect their lands. Not because of any past loyalty to our father. Never for a moment forget this." Parasites, he thought. Every last one of them.

Frederick looked up from his chair, his usually smiling eyes now dark and red-rimmed. It hurt Leopold to see him this way. His brother was a simple man, honorable and just, if not overly wise. He would make a good king. Too good-the German princes would flay him alive. It would be best for all if Frederick was not a candidate for the throne, but Leopold knew that was impossible.

Their father had built the German Empire up for one of his sons to rule, and Frederick would give his life to honor his father's ambitions, no matter the cost to himself. Everyone knew Frederick the Handsome's honor and sympathy for his subjects were his greatest strengths, but Leopold saw them as weaknesses that would eventually lead to his downfall. And when he fell, as he most surely would, it was Leopold's duty to ensure the Habsburg line survived. And the longer he kept Frederick alive, the longer he would have to increase the family's private holdings. In Leopold's mind, the acquisition of land and estates in the Habsburg name was the key to maintaining power.

That, and of course, the Stormriders.

"Promise me something," Leopold said.

Frederick stared into the fire. "If I can," he said.

"You will never relinquish control of the Sturmritter to another man. Not even your military advisors." Especially them.

"Then I would ask something of you," Frederick said.

Leopold's head cocked to one side. It was unlike his brother to barter with him. With a great effort Frederick pushed himself up from his warm chair like a drowning man kicking to the water's surface.

"Take the Fool with you to Aargau. It seems he has a history with many of our father's advisors and I fear for his life while he is here. I cannot possibly devote the time every day to keep him from harm's path."

Leopold took a deep breath before he spoke. "Surely no one could gain from killing the Fool. This is his home. He would not be happy, nor comfortable, in our rustic country estates."

"You and I know he is no threat. But some feel he was too close to father and was privy to all types of sensitive information. Please, Leo, obey me on this one thing. Father would want to see our childhood playmate taken care of as he enters his twilight years."

Leopold forced his thin lips into something resembling a smile.

"Of course. But I have business to attend before returning to Habsburg. Have him ready his belongings and send him in a few days."

Even that much of a respite would be welcome. Frederick placed his hands on Leo's shoulders.

"Thank you brother. It may be a small thing to you, but knowing our Fool is safe in your care lessens much of the weight bearing on my mind."

He threw his arms around Leopold and they embraced.

Then holding him at arms length he looked at his brother and said, "Besides, you may find his advice intriguing. Sometimes I think he is my wisest advisor."

Frederick broke into honest, deep-belly laughter at this, which lifted years from his face. Leopold, grateful to see the change, echoed his brother's laughter, musing all the while whether God had a hand in inflicting this punishment.

 

***

 

The cheese hut stood alone high in the hills. To provide a level foundation in the mountainous terrain, it was built on legs of differing heights consisting of flat stones stacked upon one another. The top stone of each leg was smooth and twice the size of the others so as to create an overhang, an impossible barrier for field mice trying to climb up the legs and gain entry to the hut. A month from now, when the snow was completely gone and the grasses turned the hills green, the farmer and his wife would drive their animals up from the lowlands and live in the hut all summer long making cheese.

But for now, there was only one resident: a young man, once used to the silk and linen comforts of the noble class but now garbed in the coarse, itchy brown robe of a Dominican friar. His hair was disheveled, and dark, bloodshot eyes told of countless nights with little sleep.

As dusk approached, he stood inside the small hut with the door ajar, looking out over the hills as two riders approached. His first impulse was to flee, but he soon recognized the riders and willed himself to stay put.

Moments later, Leopold dismounted, while Klaus, a thick soldier who had been Leopold's man for many years, remained on his horse and kept a watchful eye on the surrounding slopes.

"Cousin, I thought you had broken your word and forsaken me in this damnable place," John said, his voice accusing and rough from lack of use.

Leopold untied a bag from his saddle and tossed it to John, who snatched it out of the air and immediately snaked his hand inside to retrieve a thin slice of dried meat and a crusty loaf. It had been three weeks since his last visit from Leopold and his desire to speak with another person was great, but so was his need to eat something other than the porridge and cheese he had been living on. He crammed the slice of meat into his mouth and bit into the loaf. Crumbs flaked off and clung to his shaggy beard.

Leopold screwed up his nose and shook his head. "I do not recall you being so uncouth at our last encounter. Perhaps you tire of this peaceful retreat in the Alps and are ready to move on?"

John ripped off another piece of bread with his teeth and spoke around it. "You know I am. Do not play games with me Leo-what news have you?"

"Good news cousin. You are free to go wherever you like now."

John's eyes lit up and he lowered the bag of food. "The princes will grant clemency then? I can return to Salzburg?"

"Salzburg? I suppose you could, but keep in mind you are still Wolf's head in Austria and like the beast, your skin can be traded for coin."

"What do you mean? You said I had to but wait for the princes to assemble and vote. Surely they see what a madman the King had become. I have served the German Empire and yet I hide in these hills cowering like a common criminal! You swore to me-"

Leopold cut him off by grabbing the front of his robe and pulling him close. "You are far worse than a common criminal," he said, and then disgusted by the stench of the man, pushed him stumbling back into the cheese hut's wall.

"The Pope has placed you under the Holy Ban."

The effect of the words was instantaneous. Horrified, John's legs went slack and he slid down the wall to sit on the ground. Leopold rubbed his hands together and then wiped them on one of Klaus's legs. The veteran soldier kept his eyes locked on the horizon.

"Apparently I underestimated how much the Pope respected my father."

John sat on the ground hugging his knees. His mouth opened and closed several times before he finally found his voice. "No, it cannot be. I will flee to Spain. No Italia. I must go to Rome and buy indulgence..."

"Fool. How far do you think you will get when every man, child, and woman has the right to beat, rob, and kill you on sight? Under threat of excommunication, no one is allowed to aid you. I have wasted the past few months of my life building discreet relations with your connections at court. And for what? Nothing. You are useless to me now."

John shook his head slowly from side to side. "No-this is not what you promised. You said I would be granted lands and titles when Frederick became King." He pointed his finger up at Leopold. "You gave your word!"

Leopold rolled his eyes and walked over to his horse. "My word was it?"

He pulled himself up into the saddle and said, "Sorry cousin. I can deal with princes and kings, but a Papal Ban is beyond even me."

John stood on shaky legs and stumbled over to the two mounted men. Klaus grabbed the pommel of his sword, but Leo held up a restraining hand as John wrapped himself around the young Duke's boot and pleaded.

"No, do not go Leo. Please, I am sorry I accused you. I have been alone too long...my mind is not right. Surely there is something we can do. I will stay in hiding and when Frederick becomes king he can beseech the Pope..."

Leopold gently placed his hand on John's head and leaned over him. "My dear cousin, can you not see I have no choice?" One corner of his thin lips turned up in a smirk. "And besides...you did kill my father. Why would I assist the likes of you?"

Leopold pushed John away by his head, turned his horse, and jammed his heels into its side. He held up a hand in parting and called out, "Good luck on the road cousin. Beware old ladies and children trying to kill you in your sleep."

He left John the Parricide, slack-legged and hunched in front of the age-blackened shack, a man with no country and no god.

  

 

Chapter 3

 

WHEN THEY CAME to Altdorf, a town near the southern end of the Great Lake, Ruedi abruptly announced he would separate from the party.

Altdorf was a thriving town for these parts. Almost a city, Thomas thought. Easily the largest settlement they had seen since coming over the Gotthard Pass. On a rise in the distance he could even see new construction under way. It appeared to be a large stone keep beginning to take shape.

"Heard a rumor about five years back I have a sister in these parts," Ruedi said. "Course it came from a drunken Norseman, and he was not sure if he was in Burglen or Altdorf at the time. Still, nothing better to do. Might as well check it out."

"Best of luck finding her. I swear, this town has tripled in size since I saw it last. It was nothing more than a few farmer's huts clustered together from what I remember," Anton said.

"Well that is no farmer's hut," Pirmin said pointing at the keep on the hill.

Thomas remembered the Norseman Ruedi talked about. The Wyvern had been patrolling the waters off the coast of Turkey and they came across the remains of a burned out merchant knarr floating dead in the water. Only one man remained alive, though he hovered precariously close to death.

Thomas ordered him to be taken to the Hospital in Rhodes, where to everyone's amazement and thanks in no small part to the skill of the Order's doctors, the man had survived and spent almost two months amongst the Hospitallers. He was well traveled and a tireless storyteller, provided he was kept in his cups, and told endless tales of the far North and how most people there still believed not in one god, but in many, similar to the Greeks of old.

The seven men dismounted in front of a church, which, though small, was still the most impressive building in sight. Next to it was a recently constructed barracks, with three Austrian soldiers standing about eyeing the travelers. It was midday, the street quiet as most people were at work.

Each man said some parting words to Ruedi and embraced him in the quick emotional manner of men who had forged a bond of incredible strength over the years. As a parting gift Thomas gave him a dozen crossbow quarrels.

"You will make better use of these than I ever could," Thomas said.

"Aye. You never had much of an eye, Cap'n. I will come find you sometime-maybe take you hunting. Try not to starve before then." His voice broke slightly and the forks of his mahogany beard twitched as he clamped his mouth shut.

Thomas mounted up and the men rode out of Altdorf, leaving Ruedi standing alone in the middle of the road, the occasional townsman scurrying past, pretending not to stare.

 

***

 

It was already dark when they rode into Schwyz, but they had no trouble finding a large inn. The village was a common stopping point for travelers who had made it over the Alps and the inn's business seemed good. The high-ceilinged common room held a dozen tables, half of them filled with patrons, when Thom's party entered. A staircase, with sturdy treads formed from split logs, led up to several rooms on the second floor.

Faces looked up but quickly turned away again when someone from Thomas's group met their gaze. Good things rarely came from prolonged eye contact with six heavily armed men weary from the road.

The owner, a thin, tight-lipped man with strong hands, watched the new arrivals suspiciously from behind a high counter, which separated the crowd from several tapped kegs. He seemed to relax slightly when Max paid some coins up front and negotiated for rooms and horse stabling.

Soon, heaping bowls of chamois stew and ceramic mugs of ale were placed before the six men. As the owner brought the food out of the kitchen, Thomas glanced an older woman and a younger pretty girl with sand-colored hair. She stared at Thomas and his companions with wide eyes, and then the door swung shut obscuring her from view.

Thomas surveyed the patrons. A few tables of traveling merchants, and another with two grizzled and grey men and a woman hunched over their drinks, talking in hushed tones. Then he looked at his own group of dirty, rough men-at-arms as an outsider might and did not blame the innkeeper for hiding the womenfolk away in the kitchen.

While with the Order, Thomas and his men had always worn brown cloaks and tunics with the white Hospitaller cross prominently displayed on the chest or shoulder. His friends looked different now in plain traveling garb, albeit their weapons and partially visible chainmail marked them as more than simple travelers.

"Our coin will go a long way in this land," Max said, obviously pleased with the outcomes of his negotiations.

"A good thing that is. Since you still owe me for re-shaping that sword you carry," Urs said. During his years of service to the Order of Saint John, in addition to being a sergeant-at-arms, Urs had been apprenticed to one of the Order's weapons-makers. A quiet perfectionist with forearms almost as large as Pirmin's, Urs was far happier handling hammer and anvil than using the quality weapons he forged.

"I told you. Once we get to Zug I will sell some of my spices at the market and buy you a new horse. A good mountain pony that will carry your bulk to Basel without balking at every slope."

Urs grunted-a noncommittal sound that meant he neither agreed nor disagreed with Max. For a moment it looked like he might say more but instead wrapped his thick fingers around the mug in front of him and drained it.

Since leaving Ruedi at Altdorf, the reality that their journey together was at an end had finally sunk in, and Thomas had been debating with himself where his own path would finish. Max had family in Zug, Urs was from Basel, Gissler's father was a steward of land in the Aargau, Anton was headed to Appenzell, and Pirmin could not stop talking about the mountains of Wallis and his family's black-necked goat farm, although he seemed to be taking the long way home by going through Schwyz.

Schwyz. This was where their journey together had begun so many years ago. It was fitting that it should also end here.

"Max, I would collect my share here in the morning," Thomas said.

Conversation within the group ceased and as one they turned to look at Thomas. When they were on campaign, Max had always looked after the troop's money. He had a mind that never forgot a sum and he could write numbers. He knew a few letters, but the only one of the group who could truly read and write was Thomas.

Money had not played a large part in the sergeants' military lives, since their everyday needs were supplied by the Order, but they were given a small salarium every month to be spent how they chose. Before leaving Rhodes for the last time, Max had collected the meager life savings of his friends together and exchanged the coins for a letter of credit from the Order of Saint John, which was redeemable at any of the Order's hospices or estates scattered throughout Europe. Many merchants took advantage of this deposit and withdrawal system offered by both the Hospitallers and the Templars, since it was a safe way to conduct business in lands rife with thieves and highwaymen.

Max had redeemed the letter at a hospice they found in northern Italia a week ago, but since everyone trusted him, he still held all the coin himself, doling it out carefully when they needed to purchase meals or lodging.

"So you will be staying here in Schwyz then?" Max asked, looking over his half-eaten bowl of stew.

Thomas shrugged. "For awhile. Remember that old man and his ferry we passed on the lake close to Brunnen? It gave me an idea."

"You will be wasting yourself here in the poor country," Gissler said. "Come with me up north to the Aargau. My father has connections-I am sure he knows someone who could put our swords to use."

Thomas shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, Gissler, but I mean to try my hand at something different. It seems the Good Lord has more than hinted that my time as one of His sword bearers has come to an end, and frankly, I have no desire to see it put to another's use."

"Thomi, Thomi. Your days on the water are over. What would you be wanting with an old rotten barge I wonder?" Pirmin said, already drinking from his third mug of ale.

Thomas's eyes came to life. "She will not be rotten when I finish with her."

Pirmin stared at Thomas for a moment while he sopped up the juices of his stew with a chunk of crusty bread. He popped it into his mouth and spoke around it, which had the effect of lessening his Wallis accent, and curiously, made his speech easier to understand.

"Well I know as soon as I get back home to Tasch my family will want to marry me off to keep the Schnidrig line going strong. And I admit I look forward to one part of that. Those Wallis women are easy on the eyes and know how to keep their men warm at night, I tell you that much."

"What do you know about Wallis women? You were eight the last time you saw one," Thomas said.

"Must be talking about his mother," Anton said.

"It is the air and the water," Pirmin said, ignoring them both. "Something about it produces the most handsome animals, and people. Similar to how the bitter water in Appenzell keeps all Anton's people small and stunted. Talk nice to me lads, and maybe I will bring some of that Wallis nectar and sell it to you. No reason your children need to be ugly-God knows you and your kin have suffered enough already."

Anton punched the giant man in the shoulder, while Gissler dipped his fingers in his ale and flicked them at Pirmin. Pirmin wiped his face and crossed himself and then held up a finger.

"But first, I think I will stay here for a time and help Thomi build his boat. Raise up gentlemen and let us drink to making ugly people better looking!"

"To new ventures," Max said, raising his mug.

They echoed Max's toast and clanked their mugs together, splashing ale over the table. They laughed hard and drank long into the night, reminiscing over thirty years of shared exploits. For the remainder of the evening, they peeled back the years until each man saw only the faces of boys before him, and the aches and pains inflicted by a lifetime of war dissolved into the night.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

NOLL MELCHTHAL sprinted up the treed slope, breathing through his nose and pacing himself carefully so the armored men cursing and shouting behind did not fall too far back. His powerful legs pumped with a rhythm all their own. These were his woods, his mountains. No foreign lapdog soldier could touch him here.

He stooped and picked up a good rock. Taking careful aim he wound up and launched it at the closest man. A boiled-leather breastplate emblazoned with the red fist insignia of Berenger von Landenberg, the Habsburg appointed Vogt of Unterwalden, protected the man's chest, but the stone hit him high in the shoulder and he let out a squeal of pain. Noll laughed and ducked behind a tree as a crossbow bolt flew past and skittered off the rock bluff behind him.

He pulled up the hood on his cloak, stepped out from behind his cover to make sure the soldiers got a good look at him, and started climbing again. A minute later he crested the rise and the path leveled out for a straight stretch through the forest.

Squatting against a tree was Aldo, a tall boy in his late teens wearing a cloak the same drab brown as Noll's. He stood up and grinned at Noll with a questioning look on his face. Noll slowed to a walk and counted slowly to ten, then he made a forward motion with his hand and the young man pulled up the hood of his cloak and ran away through the forest.

Noll veered off the path and sat down in the underbrush. He could hear the soldiers crashing up the slope for some time before they finally appeared at the top. They spotted the figure running through the trees in the distance and, heartened by the level ground, immediately gave chase with renewed vigor. They charged by so close to Noll's hiding spot he could see the sweat on their red faces and hear the bellows of their breathing.

Seconds later, Noll stood and watched the clumsy soldiers crashing through the underbrush in pursuit of their quarry. He shook his head, then turned and began walking back down the hill to the Austrian soldiers' deserted camp.

 

***

 

Trees were the most vocal beings in the forest. They were kind and generous souls and although Seraina rarely comprehended what they were saying to one another, she never tired of listening to their creaks and murmurs. Occasionally, she would even understand a reference to a creature or an upcoming storm, or experience a sense of emotion such as the joy of stretching out towards the morning sun or the cooling relief of a summer rain. It did not bother her that she understood so little of their language, for the sound of their voices was comforting enough.

She tended her garden behind the small cottage she had come to inhabit three years ago. It was in thick forest that allowed only sporadic beams of sunlight to pierce the canopy of trees, and perhaps that is why the previous owner deserted it. But she was no ordinary gardener. She knew how and where to plant vegetables and herbs so they flourished.

The foundation of the cottage and lower half were made from stone, upon which rough-hewn timber comprised the walls. It was a sturdy shelter and had been built with great skill many years ago, but when she found it, the thatched roof was mostly rotted away and needed to be replaced. A nearby farmer and his wife assisted her with the necessary repairs, and in return, she helped them when they needed a healer's skill.

It was three hours from the nearest village, and the village of Schwyz easily twice that, for to reach it, one must first cross an arm of the Great Lake or walk around. Seraina could not imagine why the original owner had chosen to live so far from the towns, but it suited her fine. It was far enough away that the townsfolk could pretend she did not exist, yet near enough to seek her out when they needed help.

She had not always lived so far from her people.

Like their trees, the people of these lands were capable of great kindness and looked after one another fiercely. Yet they were a private lot and devoted Christians. For a time she lived amongst them in the small village of Tellikon, near Zurich, where her skills with growing herbs and in the healing arts became well known. Even though she did not share their Christian faith, many people came to accept Seraina as a member of the community.

Until one night, with frozen rain pelting the village roofs, she assisted in a breached childbirth that left the mother dead and the baby a cripple. Death during childbirth was a common enough affair, and all would have been fine, but the baby had the misfortune of being born with misshapen feet. The parish priest called them hooves.

He tried to take the child but Seraina refused to give her up. The next night the priest appeared at her shack with a rabble of angry villagers and they tore the child from her arms. He named her a witch and a servant sent by the Devil to corrupt the people of Tellikon. Few believed his words but even fewer were foolish enough to take the chance that a demon lived amongst them.

She was driven from the town but managed to escape her pursuers and watch from the safety of the trees as they burnt her shack and the entirety of her few belongings. The torches set to her home were lit from the same bonfire used to burn the child.

Lost in her thoughts of the past, Seraina did not hear the young man approach until he spoke.

"Pretty girls should pay more attention when alone in the woods. You never know what beast might be lurking nearby."

Seraina started and stood from her garden. She cocked her head, her ears still picking up the voices of the trees, loud and unconcerned. Noll grunted as he dropped a large sack on the ground that clanged as it hit.

The trees were extremely sensitive and Seraina could tell when people, and even some animals, approached by how they reacted. She used to think it strange that Noll's presence never disturbed them, but that was before she knew him. Before she had come to realize he was the Catalyst.

"The only dangerous beasts in this area are of the human variety," Seraina said. She nodded toward the bag on the ground. "What treasures have you liberated today?"

Noll shrugged. "Soldier provisions mostly. Bread, some cheese, a few cooking pots. Choose what you want and I will take the rest back with me to the men."

Noll walked over to a barrel of rainwater, splashed some on his face and ran his fingers back through his short dark hair. He removed his shirt and began splashing water under his arms and on his neck and chest, his wiry muscles tensing under the cold water. At least five years younger than Seraina, he was lean but wide at the shoulders. For one so young he had a rare self-confidence women found irresistible and men respected.

"Oh, and I need a refill on the ivy powder," Noll said, his blue eyes glinting as beads of water ran through his hair and down the stubble on his cheeks. She allowed herself to stare for a moment before responding.

"More? You must be using too much. Where did the last three vials go?"

Noll grinned and dried off his face with his shirt. "Been lots of bedrolls to attend. Our Habsburg lords seem to be sending more soldiers than usual out into the woods these days."

Seraina shook her head. "These are games you play Noll. Really, what good are they? You steal from soldiers, taunt them, make them angry. It does nothing for the people. It changes nothing."

"Ah, but it is entertaining. And who is to say it does nothing for the people? It shows them that if my men and me can stand up to Landenberg then they can too. Two more men joined us last month."

Seraina smiled and shook her head. "Aldo and Martin? They are boys. Boys that should be at home working farms, not running through the forest playing tricks on real soldiers."

"The boys of today make up the armies of tomorrow," Noll said.

"And what if you are caught and hung? What will your men do then?"

Noll laughed and pulled on his shirt. "They would have to find me first. These are my woods, Seraina. I refuse to bend to the will of a foreigner who thinks because he has soldiers and the blessing of some King I have never seen, he can take land my family has lived on for a thousand years."

Seraina felt a flutter in her breast. She liked it when Noll spoke with such conviction, but she also knew better than to encourage him. Once Noll got started he was an unstoppable force and she would rather see that energy directed somewhere that it would do some good.

"I hear you moved your camp again," Seraina said, changing the topic.

"You are well-informed," Noll said, surprised. "Spying on me are you? Jealous perhaps? No need to be, you know. We are so far away from civilization we cannot even get camp whores to come to our tents."

"So where are you now?"

Noll shook his head. "You know I cannot tell you," he said, then his eyes took on a mischievous glint. "But I could show you. Why not come with me? We could use someone with your talents and it is too dangerous for you to be out here on your own. Too lonely. Come with me and I promise you would want for nothing."

His smile was bold and tempting. The invitation was not subtle, for that was not Noll's way. He lived for the moment, and at the moment Seraina could sense his desire. As enjoyable as helping him sate that desire might be, Seraina knew she could not go with him. He was the Catalyst, and to share his bed would cloud her visions of the Weave.

He was right though. She was lonely at times. But the horrors of Tellikon had taught her that to serve her people she must maintain her distance.

Seraina shook her head. "I have responsibilities here. I cannot just leave."

Noll exhaled and held up his hands. "You have an overgrown garden and some birds that you feed. What is so important that you have to be here?"

Seraina laughed and took his arm.

"As I have told you before. I must be close enough to help you but far enough away that I can still listen to the wind. Come. Let us go get you some more ivy powder."

Noll shook his head and fixed her with a puzzled smile.

"You are the strangest woman I have ever known." And then he remembered something. "Seraina, a few miles from here I found wolf tracks-the biggest I have ever seen. He was all alone, so probably driven out of the pack and hungry. Keep an eye out and be careful, will you?"

Seraina's breath caught in her throat.

"Seraina, did you hear what I said?" Noll asked.

Her only response was a curt nod, for she was not sure her voice could be trusted.

 

 

Chapter 5 

Aarau, capital city of the Aargau region

 

 

THE TWO ARMORED MEN, thronged by cheering spectators, circled each other. Both let their shields drop slightly to ease their aching arms and sucked in ragged breaths to prepare for the next assault. Then, one man charged forward to swing his hand-and-a-half sword down upon the other's shield.

"I never understood what the point is in hitting another man's shield," Leopold said, holding his goblet out to be refilled by a servant standing ready with a pitcher of honeyed wine. "Why not simply aim where the shield is not?"

"Intimidation," Berenger Von Landenberg, the Vogt of Unterwalden said, taking a pull off his own mead. "Shake a man's shield arm to the core and it takes the fight out of him."

He sat forward in his high-backed chair, but not because the match enthralled him. Landenberg was a large man with a rounded salt and pepper beard and the soft, blackened teeth of a noble who had eaten too much white bread. Though he wore no armor, squeezing his girth between the armrests of the wooden chair, if possible, would be far from comfortable. In his early fifties now, he watched the competitors with disdain and undisguised jealousy.

Count Henri of Hunenberg also sat on the raised platform with the young Habsburg Duke and the Vogt, albeit in a plain chair that lacked the intricate carvings of the other two men. The ever-present Klaus, Leopold's man, stood at the bottom of the platform's stairs, unmoving as an iron rod driven straight into hard-packed earth.

The crowd groaned as one of the competitors missed an overhead strike leaving himself open and his opponent brought his own blade crashing down across the man's back, knocking him to the ground and ending the match.

"Sweet Mary. Finally. This match should have been finished long ago," Landenberg said, standing to fart and stretch his joints. "Wine," he said thrusting out his mug. "I have a mind to send for my own armor."

Leopold was in no mood for Landenberg's blustering. Granted the man had his uses, especially when it came to keeping order in the backward villages and mountain settlements of Unterwalden. Violence and intimidation were all those people understood, so they deserved to be governed by a filthy boar of a man like Landenberg.

The ride back from Salzburg had been long and wearying, made even more so because Leopold had to suffer the company of the Fool. His eyes scanned the crowd and immediately picked out the little man's purple hair and white and black outfit doing a dance in front of some shabbily dressed peasants, who seemed to have forgotten their miserable lot in life and were enjoying his antics.

"Our tournament days are over, Berenger." Count Henri said, invading on Leopold's thoughts. "This is a young man's domain." Although much smaller than the hulking Landenberg, Henri still had the fit body of a knight. He had been fighting off and on in the Holy Lands for almost twenty years and had returned to the Aargau five years ago when his father died. He inherited his father's lands: three lucrative estates in the Aargau and one rocky tract of land at the head of the Gotthard Pass. Not exceptionally rich titles, but Leopold was in negotiations to acquire the Gotthard land to add to the Habsburg family's holdings. Henri's family connections with landowners in Uri, where Saint Gotthard's Pass was located, had proved valuable when Leopold had purchased land at the head of the pass last year. The same land where Leopold currently had fifty stone masons constructing a fortress that would be his new home. He needed some farmland to support the fortress, and poor though it was, Henri's small estate should do nicely. Henri's Connections would prove useful in the coming years if Leopold were to bring the pass under Habsburg control.

"Count Hunenberg is right. You have seen too many years to be playing the part of a ram so sit down and accept your place. I would wager there is not a man on this field who would not rather be one of my governors than chafing under sweaty armor."

Landenberg grunted at the rebuke. "If I had your youth, my lord, I would gladly be on that field winning my share of honors."

"Honor is a myth. The tourney was created to keep our warriors occupied in times of peace. To prevent the dogs from turning on their masters, if you will. A soldier is a tool of the nobility. One that must be stored with care, mind you, and sharpened regularly, but nothing more."

"And when that tool ages and shows signs of rust?" Count Henri asked. "What then?"

Leopold did not hesitate. "We throw it out. Or occasionally, the axe is melted down and reshaped into a hoe." He made a point in looking at Landenberg as he spoke.

Henri stood, smiling at Landenberg's discomfort, and said to Leopold, "All this talk of politics has stirred my bowels. If you will excuse me, my lord." He stepped down off the dais and moved between two merchant stalls, one selling fire-roasted sausages on a stick and the other small loaves of crusty dark bread.

Leopold motioned the next pair of combatants into the ring. Landenberg, scowling, wedged himself back down into his chair. His eyes lit up when he recognized one of the combatants, a thick young man with blonde hair and the neck of a bull whose shield bore the markings of several tourneys he had won.

"Ah. Now we shall see some sport," Landenberg said. "That is Sir Rolf of Nuremberg-saw him kill a man on this field last year. Damned fool's helm was too big and the force of Sir Rolf's blow shook his skull to pieces."

"He does appear capable," Leopold said, but his eyes were on Rolf's opponent.

He was a thin, unremarkable fellow with greying hair at least fifteen years older than any competitor on the field. And unlike the other fighters, the only armor he wore was a light mail vest that was almost hidden beneath a faded black tunic. Leather bracers covered his wrists, but there were neither plates on his shoulders or legs, nor a gorget around his throat. The older man hefted several different swords from the weapons rack and tested them for balance, shifting each one carefully from hand to hand, before finally deciding on a smaller one-handed blade with a single cutting edge.

Leopold's lips turned up in a smirk. The young duke had been raised amongst men such as this. From an early age Leopold had been sent by his father to live for months at a time in soldier barracks throughout the German Empire, France, Denmark, and Italia. While his older brothers were kept at King Albrecht's side in Austria to learn how to rule, Leopold's father shipped him off to live with foreign tutors. Not so much to learn to be a soldier, but to learn how one thinks. To recognize what motivates them and what kind of discipline it takes to control them. He learned to read men's eyes, their postures, what body types made a good horseman, and which were better suited to infantry. Who would be loyal and who could be bribed. This was his education. From the ages of ten to fifteen, Leopold saw his father only three times, at public functions of state that demanded a show of Habsburg solidarity. Frederick had visited his younger brother regularly, but both Leopold's father and oldest brother were strangers who happened to share the same family name.

"One hundred silver says the old man makes your Sir Rolf yield like a pliant serving girl."

Landenberg's eyebrows arched and he looked at Sir Rolf's opponent for the first time. He saw only an aging man with inferior equipment desperate to earn some prize money and perhaps, to hold onto a piece of his youth.

"Let us make it two hundred, and since you mentioned a serving girl, you arrange to have the innkeeper in Schwyz send his daughter to serve in my household."

Leopold had no idea who this innkeeper was, but it did not matter.

"Done," he said, waving his hand to a nearby servant. The aroma of the nearby roasted sausages had watered his mouth. He summoned a page and soon he had a hot, spitting sausage on a stick in one hand and a piece of dark bread in the other. He nibbled off a piece of the succulent meat and settled back into his chair to watch the match.

The master of the ring called the men to their marks.

"For the pleasure of our Lord Leopold, Prince of the august German Empire, Duke of Further Austria and Styria, Regent and heir-" Leopold made a cutting motion across his neck and waved impatiently at the man. He bowed stiffly and continued. "Lords and ladies, our next contest shall be between Sir Rolf of Nuremberg and..." He leaned close to the older man and asked him something. "...and...Gissler."

 

***

 

Gissler bore no shield or helm, but walked calmly to his starting position, his eyes avoided looking at his opponent. Sir Rolf's face visor was raised and strands of blonde hair poked out from beneath his chain coif. A green silk kerchief from some female admirer fluttered in the breeze at his belt.

"Fear not grandfather," Sir Rolf said to his older opponent in a clear tone that carried far into the ranks of spectators. "You will suffer no serious injury by my hand." Laughter rippled through the crowd.

Gissler looked up for the first time at his much larger adversary. His eyes narrowed and flitted casually over the young knight. He rolled his shoulders once and spit on the ground.

"Of that I am sure," Gissler said. He lifted his sword to a low guard.

Sir Rolf flinched at the impetuous attitude of his lowborn opponent. A few people close enough to hear Gissler's quiet response cheered. One boisterous man yelled, "Take him over your knee old man!"

"Begin," shouted the master of the ring and backpedaled away from between the two men. The crowd erupted.

Sir Rolf raised his shield and stalked forward without bothering to lower his visor. Gissler waited for him to close the distance and then changed to a high guard. He swung his sword at Sir Rolf's head and the young knight thrust his shield up to meet the blow and set up his counter. With surprising speed for such a large man in full armor, Sir Rolf took the blow on his shield and then dipped it to the side as he swung his hand and a half sword towards Gissler. But the older man was no longer in front of him.

The moment the knight's vision was blocked by his own shield, Gissler spun around his shield arm to Sir Rolf's back, lifted his foot and smashed it down into the back of the young man's knee, then thrust his shoulder into his back to topple the man forward. The knight hit the ground hard, coughing once as the air fled from his lungs. Gissler turned and whipped his sword down onto the back of Sir Rolf's helm so hard the blade shattered like an icicle dropping onto a winter-hardened flagstone floor. Sir Rolf's eyes jerked up into his head, the color all but disappearing and leaving only vacant whites staring into the crowd. He slowly pitched forward from his knees onto his face and did not move.

The crowd fell silent at the violent and excessive blow, but once it dawned on them the fight was over the cheering began. Sir Rolf's squires pushed forward and rolled their liege lord onto his side and carefully removed his helm. He was unconscious, but came to moaning when they sat him up, and the sudden movement caused him to retch. Vomit cascaded down his chin, while a squire frantically used his sleeve to wipe the unseemly mess off Sir Rolf's polished chest protector.

The ringmaster pushed his way forward and, his eyes wide with surprise, raised his arm in Gissler's direction. "The winner is...Gessel!"

Gissler was already moving out of the circle toward the weapon racks when he heard his name called.

"Gissler? By God, what land is this? Is that really you?" Count Henri stepped out of the crowd and clamped his hand on Gissler's shoulder. Gissler flinched, and he looked as though he might repel this new attacker, but then recognition flooded his face and he stared open-mouthed, unable to speak.

"But of course it is-I recognize your work," Henri said, nodding towards Sir Rolf's squires struggling to get their lord on his feet.

"Henri," Gissler said finally, shaking his head. "Look at you." He stepped back and gestured at the Count's richly tailored clothes and plumed hat. "A lord of peacocks if ever there was one." The two men laughed and threw their arms around one another in a rough soldier embrace.

"What are you doing here? Why are you not with the Order on Rhodes? I've word the Turks are giving the black knights an awful time on that rock."

Gissler shrugged. "That no longer concerns us. The Grand Master released us from our oaths coming on a year now."

"Us? Who else is with you man?"

"Every Schwyzer crew member of The Wyvern." Gissler told Henri how he had traveled back with Thomas, Pirmin, Ruedi, Anton, Urs, and Max. A puzzled look crossed Henri's face.

"But what of the others? Thomas's crew had three score of you when I was last aboard. What of Lars and Gerhard? And that pug-faced fellow who fell in love with every Saracen whore he saw?"

Gissler nodded, but his smile turned grim. "Geoff. Turks captured him during one of our raids on the coast. He was known to them, so his passing was not easy, I have been told. Lars has been dead nigh ten years, about the time the Mohammedans stopped accepting ransom for Hospitallers. We lost Gerhard at Rhodes, and as for the others..." Gissler held up his hands and shrugged. "We have been fighting a long time."

Henri's grin faded and after a moment, he nodded.

"The mind tries hard to forget the wars in Outremer after leaving. Some memories are better left stored away, I suppose, but I shall make a point of remembering the Schwyzers in my prayers tonight. They were good lads. Some, like your captain Thomas, a little pious and headstrong, but a more loyal core of soldiers I have never known."

He winked and put his hand on Gissler's shoulder again. "But enough. I am sure you wish to put all that behind you now, so welcome home. What are your plans?"

Gissler shrugged. "I arrived only yesterday," he said.

Out of the corner of his eye, Henri noticed Duke Leopold ascending from his dais and walking in their direction, his man Klaus hulking one step behind. Leopold was looking directly at Gissler, but pretending not to.

"Well, it seems fate is descending upon you as we speak. Let us make the most of it, shall we? Come, allow me to present you to the Duke."

 

***

 

"You were a soldier in the Holy Lands?" Leopold asked.

"Yes, my lord," Gissler said.

"He was no mere soldier. Gissler was with the Black Knights," Count Henri said.

Leopold's eyes widened and he looked a little harder at Gissler.

Ah, I see it now, he thought. The alert way the man carried himself hinted at a life of discipline, but the aloof mannerisms and impetuous eyes betrayed him. He was indeed used to being seen as more than a mere soldier. He was far above that. He was one of God's chosen warriors, a Gabriel here on Earth. These Black Knights answered to no one but the Pope and God himself, just as the Templars once did. The Church had decreed that not even kings could command these men, never mind a lowly Duke of the German Empire.

"Your Order has done a great service protecting Christendom from the infidels. You are a Hospitaller Knight then?"

Gissler's mouth twitched at the corner, and he paused before responding.

"Not a knight, your Grace. Merely a brother sergeant-at-arms. Or I was. I have recently been released from the Order."

Leopold nodded, noting the bitter edge to Gissler's voice. The Knights of Saint John were largely made up of nobles from France, Germany, England, Spain, and Italia. They were required to give up their noble rights and will their land and holdings to the Order upon their death. They also took vows of chastity and poverty, and swore to accept the poor and sick as their lords. But the title of "Knight" was reserved for those of noble blood. Despite the Order's disdain for secular titles, there existed a strict hierarchy within the Order itself, and no commoner could ever rise above the rank of brother-sergeant.

"Tell me Hospitaller. What do you think of the recent trial and condemnation of the Templar Knights by his Holiness the Pope? I understand they were rivals of your Order in a way."

Seven years previous, the Christian world had been shocked to hear the Church and King Philip of France accuse the Templar Knights of heresy. The charges included spitting upon the cross, permitting sodomy, idol worshipping, and denying Christ and treading upon his image. Templars throughout Europe were arrested, including the Grandmaster Jacques de Molay. Subsequently, Molay and many others were subjected to the inquisition and confessed their crimes under torture. They had been kept in the dungeons of France for the past seven years awaiting their fate.

"We were both working to carry out God's will. I never considered them rivals," Gissler said.

"I have read the charges against the Temple. Incredible. And the knights have confessed to many of them. Did you know they worshipped a skull with three faces?"

"I did not," Gissler said.

"And they rubbed small cords on this idol which they then wore wrapped around various parts of their bodies. The grandmaster himself confessed that the idol was responsible for imbuing the knights with great riches. Behavior more fitting a coven of witches than a holy order, do you not agree?"

"A man will confess to much under torture," Gissler said, shifting his weight.

"Would he? Does not God dull the pain of the righteous? The Church tells us the innocent have nothing to fear from the inquisitor's tools of truth. And in fact, the courts will not recognize a confession unless it has been obtained through torture. Is that not so?"

"It is my lord."

"Well, it is in the past now I suppose, since the Grandmaster of the Temple has been burned at the stake. Ah, I see you did not know this."

Gissler cleared his throat. "The last I heard Grandmaster Molay had been cleared of all charges."

"Apparently King Philip of France decided otherwise. It is no secret that he has coveted the Templars' holdings in France for many years, but his plan bore no fruit. The Pope transferred all Templar estates to the Hospitallers. How in the world your Grandmaster convinced the Pope to do that, I cannot imagine. What do you suppose he will do with all that wealth now? Continue fighting the infidel? After nearly two hundred years it seems pointless really."

"As I said, I have no knowledge of any of this, my lord. I have been on the road for the better part of a year."

Leopold could tell the conversation was making Gissler uncomfortable, but to his credit he held the Duke's intense gaze with his own look of defiance. If he had been a normal peasant, Leopold would have had him whipped. Or worse. But he was a Hospitaller man-at-arms. A soldier forged in the wars of the Levant, and there was no finer training ground for his kind. And now, much to Leopold's liking, he was without a master.

A murmur shot through the crowd as the next two competitors made their way to the clearing and readied themselves for battle.

"Where does the name Gissler hail from? It sounds familiar," Leopold asked.

Gissler's face brightened. "Here in the Aargau, my lord. My family is steward for one of the King's estates near Sursee. Perhaps you know of my father? Hubert Gissler? Or, I suppose it possible my older brother Hugo is now chief steward."

Leopold pursed his lips and turned to his man Klaus. The old soldier thought for a moment and then cleared his throat. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded like gravel sliding down a rock slope.

"King Albrecht granted that land to a French Count years ago. Brought in his own people to run it. Man named Lafayette is steward now."

The light in Gissler's eyes faded as quickly as it had appeared.

"They may still be working the land," Count Henri said. "And if not, someone there would surely know where to find them."

Gissler nodded slowly.

The crowd cheered again as the ringmaster called the combatants to their marks.

"Come Klaus. We must be returning to Kussnacht," Leopold said.

"You will not stay and see the outcome of the tourney?" Count Henri asked.

Leopold waved his hand. "I have my wedding to prepare for, and besides, the outcome of the tourney was decided the moment our Hospitaller entered. For who can compete with someone who has God on his side?"

The young Duke held the trace of a smile in his eyes but did not wait for an answer as he turned to take his leave. At the last moment, seemingly as an afterthought, he turned back and said, "Gissler, once you have sorted out your family affairs, come to Habsburg castle. Perhaps I will have work for you."

Klaus strode a few steps ahead of Leopold, cutting a path through the crowd with wide sweeps of his tree-limb arms, as they made their way to a waiting carriage with an armed escort of a dozen mounted soldiers clothed in the Habsburg colors of black and red. Two flag-bearers, one carrying a standard with the red lion of Habsburg, and the other a black bird of prey on a field of yellow, the colors of the Holy Roman Empire, stood nearby. A lithe figure with green hair twisted its way through the hundreds of spectators and was waiting at the carriage door seconds before Leopold arrived.

By late afternoon Leopold's predictions had materialized, for no knight at the country tourney could stand before Gissler's speed and skill. He dispatched his opponents with a ruthless efficiency, never taking longer than one or two minutes, except on those occasions when he decided a knight needed to be toyed with and publicly humiliated. Every man who faced him sustained injuries and limped, crawled, or was carried from the circle. By the final matches, Gissler's ferocious reputation did as much to defeat his opponents as his sword blows.

After the final match, while a young knight still lay on the ground, his feet twitching in unconsciousness, Gissler took his prize purse and walked away.

He left the championship cup and pennant sitting on the table.

 

... continued ...

 

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