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Heart of the Flame
by Tina St. John
Ivy Books, 2005
He entered the place slowly, his footsteps hesitant now that he had breached the threshold. After so long an absence from his Father’s house, he was not at all sure he would be welcome. He doubted he would be heard. But embraced or nay, his heart was heavy, and he knew of nowhere else to lay his burdens. The blame here, however, was wholly his own; he reckoned he would carry that for the rest of his days.
Fine silver spurs rode at the heels of his boots, ticking softly on the smooth stone floor as he advanced, their tinny music the only disturbance of sound in the vacant chamber. Unwarmed, unlit save for the hazy overcast glare that washed in through a high arched window, the vaulted space held the cool stillness of a tomb. Fitting, he thought, his eyes yet burning from the sight that had greeted him upon his arrival.
For a moment, as he reached the end of his path, the knight could only stand there, his limbs leaden from his days of travel, his throat scorched and dry like the bitter chalk of ash.
Golden head bowed, he closed his eyes and sank to his knees on the floor.
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis . . .”
The prayer fell from his lips by rote, familiar as his own name. Kenrick of Clairmont had said this prayer a thousand times, nay, countless repetitions—a hundred times a day for seven days straight, as was required every time one of his Templar brethren had fallen. Although he was no longer of the Order, he wanted to believe that where his vow was broken, some scrap of his faith might still remain. The prayer he recited now was for a friend and that man’s family, for Randwulf of Greycliff and the wife and young son who once lived in this place.
Each breath Kenrick drew to speak held the cloying tang of smoke and cinder. Soot blackened the floor of the chapel where he knelt, as it did the walls of the small tower keep beyond. The place was in ruin, all of it dead and cold some weeks before he had arrived.
Rand and his cherished family . . . gone.
Kenrick needed not question why, or whom. The annihilation bore the stamp of Silas de Mortaine, the man who had held him hostage in a Rouen dungeon for nigh on half a year, and surely would have killed him anon, had it not been for his daring rescue a few months ago. Kenrick found it hard to maintain his relief at that thought now. While he was recuperating from his torture, Rand and his loved ones were meeting a hellish end.
All because of him.
All because of a secret pact he had shared with his friend and brother-in-arms, a pledge sealed more than a year ago at this humble Cornish manor near Land’s End.
If he had known what it would cost Rand, he never would have sought his help.
“. . . sed libera nos a malo . . .”
Too late, he thought, bitter with grief and remorse. De Mortaine’s evil was inescapable. His grasp was far-reaching. He was a menacing force, a wealthy man who dealt in dark magic and commanded a small army of mercenary beasts to assist him in his malevolent goals. He wanted the Dragon Chalice, a legendary treasure of mystical origins. Kenrick had stumbled upon the Chalice tales in his work for the Order. In truth, he had thought it mere myth, until he had held part of the fabled treasure in his hands and witnessed the astonishing breadth of its powers.
The Dragon Chalice was real, and the carnage here was merely one more demonstration of Silas de Mortaine’s intent to claim the Chalice for his own. For Kenrick of Clairmont, who still bore the scars of his incarceration, the travesty surrounding him at Rand’s keep was further proof of why he could not allow de Mortaine to win.
Not at any cost.
“Amen,” he growled, then brought himself to his feet in the charred nave of the chapel.
For a moment, he allowed his gaze to settle on the wreckage of the place, at the modest gold crucifix hanging above the altar, unscathed. He bit back the wry curse that rose to his tongue, but only barely.
Not even God could stop de Mortaine from visiting his wrath on these noble folk.
A mild blasphemy to think such a thing, particularly in a place of worship. All the worse that it should come from a man once sworn into God’s service, first as a novitiate monk, then, later, as a Knight of the Temple of Solomon.
“Saint” was what Rand and his friends had often called Kenrick in their youth, a name given in jest for his rigid nobility and scholarly ways.
But those days were long past. He would waste no further time dwelling on old memories than he would now afford his grief. There would be time for both once his business here was concluded.
As eager as he had been to arrive earlier that day, now he longed to be away. His scalp itched beneath the cropped cut of his hair, a lingering reminder of his captivity, when his head and beard had crawled with lice. He had cut it all away at first chance, preferring to be clean-shaven daily, his dark blond hair kept shorter than was stylish, curling just above the collar of his brown tunic and gambeson. He scratched at his nape, cursing the bitter reminder.
On second thought, he reflected, pivoting sharply, perhaps the niggling crawl of his scalp had more to do with the sudden feeling he had that he was not alone in the abandoned keep. There seemed a mild disturbance in the stillness of the air, as though someone—or something—breathed amid the death that permeated the place. Outside in the yard, one of the townsfolk who had witnessed the carnage waited with Kenrick’s mount. The graybeard’s portly form had not moved from where he stood.
Still, Kenrick felt eyes on him, surreptitiously watching. Waiting. . . .
“Who is there?” he called, the low command echoing hollowly off the vaulted walls.
No one answered.
His sharp blue gaze flicked into every shadowed corner, quickly assessing his surroundings. Nothing stirred. Nothing met his eye but cold stone and vacant silence. The chapel, like the adjacent tower keep, was empty. He was alone here after all.
That there were few around to meet him when he arrived, nary a peasant or neighbor willing to come forth and speak with him about what they might have witnessed, would have seemed unsettling had this not been Cornwall. Folk were different in this far-flung end of the realm. They kept to their own affairs, and they were not in the habit of welcoming strangers.
It had required a sizable fee to convince the man outside to provide his account of what had happened at the keep a fortnight past. Kenrick’s head still rang with the terrible details: a band of raiders attacking the small manor in the night, the screams of women and children, plumes of fire and smoke as the keep was set ablaze, its inhabitants locked inside. . . .
He swore aloud, cursing himself and the uncaring God who had allowed this to happen. Rage churned in his gut as he quit the chapel for the yard outside.
The old townsman looked at him as he approached, and somberly shook his head. “Like I told you, m’lord. ’Twere an awful thing. Hard to think of anyone who might wish to harm Sir Randwulf and his family, kind as they were. Naught anyone could do about it, though. Whoever attacked this place came and went like ghosts in the dead of night. I don’t reckon the poor souls had a chance.”
Kenrick said nothing as he strode farther into the court, struck anew by the decimation. He paused only a moment, unable to prevent his eyes from straying across the scorched spring grass and muddy yard to where a child’s toy cart lay overturned and broken.
A memory flitted through his mind. Rand’s son, laughing as he tugged the painted wooden wagon behind him, fast as his five-year-old legs could carry him. Elspeth was there, too, Rand’s pretty wife, waving to the three men—Rand, Kenrick, and jubilant Tod—as they passed her in the sunlit gardens of the keep. It had been the last he had seen of Rand and his family. He had come there to enlist his friend’s help; instead he had delivered their death warrant.
“Stay here,” Kenrick ordered the old man, not wishing to hear any more of what Rand and his family suffered. “I wish to be alone for a while.”
“As you will, m’lord.”
The solitude would suit him well in his next task, Kenrick admitted as he drew his dagger from the sheath at his belt. Above him now, the sky had turned from dull overcast to a mass of dark, gathering clouds. It would not be long before the cool sprinkle of rain that misted his face and bare hands would worsen to a downpour. He needed no better excuse to be quick about his work and have done with this place. Walking briskly, Kenrick left the courtyard and headed around the side of the chapel.
A small cemetery plot huddled in the shade of the westerly wall. The graves of Rand’s forebears—thieves, scoundrels, and whores, Greycliff would admit with a reckless grin—lay burrowed beneath the staggered row of a dozen granite markers. Three oblong patches of raised brown earth indicated the newest additions to the plot. If Rand’s neighbors avoided the place now, at least someone had taken care to see the slain family was properly laid to rest. Thinking on that somber event, knowing who lay buried under the damp mounds, Kenrick swallowed back a fierce wave of regret.
He entered the cemetery with reverent care, treading softly, his gaze searching out a squat pillar of chiseled stone near the back of the place, where the oldest of the graves were located. He had taken only a few steps when his spur clinked on something metallic beneath his boot. A pendant necklace, he realized, stooping down to retrieve it from the mossy ground. It was Elspeth’s; he had never seen her without it dangling from around her delicate neck. The chain was broken now, the pendant dirtied from its time in the elements.
She would despair of its loss, even in death, for it had been a gift from her husband. Kenrick palmed the simple piece, fisting his hand around the cool metal. It belonged with Rand’s wife; it seemed the least he could do to repair the crushed golden chain and bring the necklace back.
As he loosened the drawstring of his baldric pouch, he heard a rustle of movement somewhere nearby. Or perhaps it had only been the rain, which was pattering down a little harder than before, slapping gently on the rounded tops of the gravestones. He slipped the pendant into the pouch and stood up, pivoting to make certain the old man hadn’t followed him.
No one was there. Only stillness, as it had been in the chapel.
The dagger he held felt cool and heavy in his hand, the sword sheathed at his hip an added measure of security he was fully prepared to use. In his fury over what had befallen his friends, Kenrick almost wished he would encounter Silas de Mortaine on this scorched plot of land.
His palms itched to deliver unholy vengeance . . . but first, the task at hand.
Kenrick stalked to the lichen-spotted marker at the far end of the cemetery and crouched down before it. With the point of his dagger, he found the hidden cleft in the chiseled design. Off-shape, no bigger than a child’s palm, the secret compartment was disguised by the scrollwork and lettering hammered into the granite ages ago. Rand and he were not the first ones to make use of it. One of the early Greycliff brides had employed the marker to receive communiqués and gifts from a royal lover.
Now the stone held a secret of a far more dangerous sort.
Kenrick dug the sharp tip of the blade into the seam of the compartment, working the slender edge of steel around until the piece began to loosen. The granite rasped as it gave way, inch by inch. The final corner pried loose, Kenrick eased the wedge of stone out into his palm and gazed at the small compartment it revealed.
“God’s blood.” He exhaled the oath, tossing down his dagger and narrowly resisting the urge to drive his fist into the slab of granite before him.
It wasn’t there.
The shallow hiding place carved into the tombstone, which had contained a folded square of parchment when he had sealed it up a year ago, was empty.
He stared into that vacant space, a thousand questions—a thousand dire possibilities—roiling in his head. Who had found the seal? How did they know where to look? How long had it been gone? Would they know how to use it, what to do with it?
And perhaps more crucial, now that it appeared he had lost it, how could he go about finishing his quest without it?
As it stood, he wouldn’t have much time. It had taken him several years to realize precisely what he had uncovered, to understand the importance of protecting it from those who would use it for their own gain. Countless days and nights he had spent, toiling with his journals and ledgers, sifting out every fact from the troves of fiction buried within decades of dusty records and reportings of the Order.
“Christ on the Cross, how can this be?”
The final key to his discovery, enveloped within a single sheaf of parchment, now likely resided in the hands of his enemies.
He had not come this far, survived all he had, only to fail here and now. Nor would he permit Rand and his family to have died in vain. Placing the dislodged wafer of chiseled granite back in place on the grave marker, Kenrick pushed to his feet.
From the corner of his eye, he caught an unmistakable flicker of movement. His head snapped up, his gaze cutting sharply over his shoulder.
Damn it, he was being watched.
A fleeting splash of color moved near the wall of the chapel, too late to fully escape his notice this time. Kenrick caught a momentary glimpse of pale white skin and wary, wide green eyes. A mere blink was all the time she paused—just long enough for Kenrick to register the delicacy of the woman’s heart-shaped face, which was caught in an expression of startlement as she looked back at him in that frozen instant. A drooping mane of unbound auburn hair framed her striking countenance, the rich russet-red tangles glowing like fire against the persistent gray of the morning. She was plainly garbed, a commoner by her modest attire of cloak and kirtle, but hardly plain of face or form.
As tense as he was, his blood seething over the loss of his friends and the prized item he sought, Kenrick was not immune to the beauty of this unexpected intruder. Indeed, he was tempted to stare, having found such incongruous beauty amid the smoldering ruins. His observer seemed in no mind to afford him the chance. Her eyes lit on the dagger still clutched in his fist, then she lunged, quick as a sprite, dashing behind the front wall of the chapel.
“Stop,” he ordered, knowing he would be ignored and already vaulting to his feet in pursuit.
He ran around to the corner of the small church, his spurs chewing up the soft earth, his weaponry jangling with each heavy bootfall. His quarry was far lighter of foot, simply there one moment and gone the next. Into the chapel, he had to presume, for there were few places to hide, and there was no sign of her in the yard or on the gently rolling field beyond the keep.
“Where did she go?”
“Eh?” The old townsman looked up with a start as Kenrick thundered into the bailey, peering at him from over his grazing horse’s head. “She, m’lord?”
“The woman—where is she?”
The graybeard looked to and fro, then shrugged his rounded shoulders. “I’ve seen no one a’tall, m’lord.”
“You must have seen something. She was spying on me in the graveyard and ran this way not a moment ago. You must have heard her footsteps at the very least?”
“Nay, sir. ’Twasn’t no one come through here in a fortnight, save the both of us. I saw nothing, I assure you.”
Kenrick swore under his breath. He was not imagining things, surely. A woman had been there. Watching him. With stealthy strides, he approached the open doorway to the chapel, the only place she could have gone. “Show yourself. You have nothing to fear,” he said, stepping into the vaulted chamber. “Come out now. I wish only to talk to you.”
The barest shift of sound came from a toppled cabinet to his right. The door to the piece hung askew on its hinges. Too small to hide but a child, yet it afforded the sole spot of concealment in all of the chapel. From the darkened wedge of space at the top, Kenrick saw the glint of a wary stare watching him as he approached.
“Who are you?” he asked, coming to stand there. He wished not to frighten the chit, but he wanted answers. Needed them. “What do you know of this place?”
When no reply came, he reached out with his booted foot and began to move aside the broken door of the cabinet to reveal its cowering occupant. There was a whine, then a fearful, animal growl as he bent down to peer inside.
It was not his stealthy observer after all.
A small red fox glared at him with hackles raised and teeth bared, trapped between the unyielding back of the cabinet enclosure and the dagger-wielding man who blocked its easy escape. The instant Kenrick withdrew, the little beast dashed out and fled the chapel for the safety of the outlying moors. Kenrick turned and watched it go, letting out his anxiety in a long, heavy sigh.
Where had she gone?
Whoever the woman was, she had managed to vanish.
Into thin air, he was tempted to think, as he scanned his surroundings and saw no trace of the lovely intruder . “I wager it don’t take long for the animals to come nosing about when there’s no one here to shoo them off,” said the graybeard from the village. He clucked his tongue as he ambled forward to where Kenrick stood. “Nothing of worth in this place for anyone now, man or beast. They burnt it all, save the stone of the keep and chapel. Sorrow is all that dwells here.”
Maybe so, Kenrick thought, unable to argue that the destruction of the place had been as thorough as it had been brutal. But there was something else lurking here, too. Something beyond the death and cinder, and far more elusive than an errant forest scavenger hoping to root out its next meal from among the ruins. That particular something had a riot of long, rich, red hair, and the most beautiful face Kenrick had ever beheld.
And as sure as he had seen her, wherever she’d run to, he was certain she hadn’t gone far.
Excerpted from Heart of the Flame by Tina St. John.
Copyright © 2005 by Tina St. John. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.