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Chapter 1:- Epithet of the Raven

           Twenty years of sacrifice and service had come down to this futility.  There was no feat Engle could perform or argument he could make to change his fate.  Live or die, the outcome was out of his hands. 

            Three ravens soared above the heights of the palace walls.  They surveyed the surrounding hillside and returned to the tower, landing in perfect formation.  They turned their heads toward Lord Engle, unperturbed by the intensity of his gaze.  Perhaps they knew that he would not remain long.      

             Ravens reigned supreme in Lisseon as symbols of the king’s longsighted wisdom. They occupied the central figure of the royal crest and had become Lord Engle's constant companions these last several weeks, bearing the word of both glad and evil tidings for as long as he could remember.  No doubt they had always known that his presence at the palace was to be one of short duration.  He did not ask and they did not say.

             “What is to be the word from my king?”

            One of the ravens inclined its head and squawked sympathetically, knowing he had failed in his true mission and fallen away from the pure faith.  The others were unencumbered by pity and seemed to confer upon the point as if considering the wisdom of the strategy like spectators to a game of chess.  For the length of a heart beat Engle thought he saw the shadow of one of them transform, harkening a creature of another sort, one possessing four limbs and the jaws to rent flesh from bone.  It vision was as black as the raven's feathers and stalked toward him as if to strike.  Then it was gone leaving Engle to wonder if this like so many other apparitions was the work of an old superstition preying upon his vulnerable mind.  Reason intervened and his heart returned to its regular beat.  He had destroyed the last of that spawn of darkness more than two decades ago.

            The battlement stood at considerable height and that, along with its southwest exposure, was undoubtedly what attracted the beasts. When the castle was first completed the king occupied the chamber directly below.  Attempts to drive away the black birds were futile, so the king moved his residence to the east tower and left the west facing one empty for many decades.  Over the years it gradually became an archive of forgotten writings and obsolete weaponry. 

                After ten years of living with the sounds aboard a ship, their squawks proved no hardship to Engle.  He spent many hours pouring over histories in the archive and often stayed in the chamber below.  The ravens tolerated his presence well enough and acknowledged him as much or as little as any other of their kin.  Engle came to refer to them as his advisers, a comment that may have influenced a rumor that he was fluent in the ancient practice of raven speak. Whether they chose to speak with him or not, he respected they were privy to far more of what was happening than they deigned to reveal.

            The sun slipped down, touching the distant waters and turning them into a sea of molten gold.  He shielded his eyes against the glare.  It was nearly a hundred miles to the shores of Ogalon and those waters he sailed a lifetime ago.  Behind him were the forests of Duessa, the land of his father, but the sea had always been Engle’s true home.  The Lisseon Mountain peaks stood like sentinels against the northern skyline with their jagged peaks and pristine glaciers carving out purple shadows along the horizon in the dying light.  If this was to be his last view in life, it was a remarkable one.

            Before the last rays faded beyond the horizon, two guards came to escort him to the throne room.  The wonderment was gone and his body ached.  In his lifetime, he had witnessed compassion and cruelty in equal measure.  His body was the proof of it.  Across his hands and on his arms were scars of every kind. The violence of each injury told in the width of the scar and its coloration. Thin white lines were mere trifles, easily forgotten.  Wide slashes stretched in purple and red were the things he wished he could forget.  The tapestry spread across his torso, where there were one or two marks that still gave him pain.  If he survived the coming judgment what sort of scars would take up his story?

            The corridors were longer than he remembered, as if after hundreds of years of stability they could stretch themselves into miles during the course of a single night.  The guards escorting him could not be more than eighteen or nineteen years old and visibly scared.  He remembered their faces not their names.  There were thousands like them.  They spanned the years he served as chief of the Lisseon army, each unique, each the same.  There was a time when he knew every face, calling each man by name.  That was long ago.  These boys were little more than strangers to him.  With Lisseon’s growing power and importance his expertise were called to greater duties in maintaining it.  There were now many men well qualified to run the drills for him.

            They stopped at the heavy doors leading to the throne room.  The once blond wood was now black from the smoking fires of a hundred bitter winters.  At the level of his knees he saw the familiar wear spots on the doors; where the wood had burnished into perfect images of two hands.  They were the imprints of desperate men who, in accord with a long-standing tradition, plead their cases at the doors and appealed to the king for justice and mercy. 

            Engle was not like them.  He was not there to beg and the chill spreading over his heart could not be warmed by any fire.  The corridor was quiet except for the pounding of the boys’ hearts.  He wondered what frightened them more, having succeeded at their task or the fear he might yet escape.  He had no inclination to run. 

            The stones creaked and moaned and the doors parted with a loud sigh, taking his breath and a little of his resignation.  He swallowed back any hesitation letting the weight of his prior conquests propel him forward.  With the dignity he summoned the day he first took orders, Engle crossed the distance to the throne and knelt before his king. 

            He saw her.  His heart caught in his throat and for the wonder of a moment she was not the queen.  Thirty years fell away as nothing.  She was as he saw her the first day they met.  The sun piercing through steam and the soot of the bellows, carving the outline of her standing over him, sweet like the first white blossoms of spring.  Her hair was raven black and there was a faint blush on her cheek as he stared too long and too longingly.  There were not the threads of silver at her temples or that band of gold claiming her finger.  

            It came to him in an instant and with the pain of long regret.  He knew better than to let his eyes graze her brow more than just that once.  He averted his eyes but not before catching the sharp look of Lord Ratheborne. 

            Engle knew that another stray glance would have lent confirmation to the despicable rumors.  Tales that Ratheborne had skillfully brought to the king’s attention.  Such a tragedy it would be if gazing upon her, devoid of guile and pure in feeling, was construed as a confession of guilt.  He lost her long ago.  She made her choice.  He did not need Ratheborne’s smug expression reminding him.

            The assembly was small.  King William deliberately excluded many members of his court from this proceeding.  No accusation was read or argument made as Engle was sentenced without trial. 

            A formal inquiry might have revealed their stories for the lies they were.  Yet because of what else was at stake, it was better to leave it alone than risk further discovery.  The punishment was read.  The words hung like a vapor in the air in the silence that followed. 

            Shock and disbelief forbade even the smallest intake of breath as all present tried to make sense of what they heard.  Though the charges against Engle were punishable by death, King William’s judgment was banishment.  It was an unprecedented mercy. 

            The guards moved toward Engle but King William waved them back.  “Enough.  Return to him what is his.”    

            They handed Engle his sword and his dagger.  He noted how their cloaks quivered.  He rose slowly and was careful to keep his head low.  If King William said anything else he did not hear it. 

            Engle wondered what might have led to this mercy and whether or not Prince Stephen had anything to do with it.  He had appealed to the young man during his imprisonment hoping Stephen might soften his father’s anger.  Perhaps it was she who had awakened this surprising compassion.  William could not forgive her without excusing him.

            If any credibility had been awarded those other suspicions, it would be her treason as well as his. This mercy was not for his sake but for hers.

            He defied Father Peter to accuse him with his pinched looks.  Let the good priest now search for sin in his face.  There was no more in his heart than what was common to all men.  Whatever wrongs he may have committed in his life, he knew for a certainty God's judgment would deem them far less wicked than the politics of such a priest.  He was not the first to fall victim to Father Peter's agenda nor was he likely to be the last.

            The walk from the throne room to the gates had never been so long or so short.  He could hardly draw breath from the time his sentence was read till he passed through the outer doors.  Taking the reins of his horse from a downcast stable boy, he passed through the castle gates for the last time as they shut behind him with an echoing finality.

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