Near Caerdeon, Wales
Brandon looked at the jutting stub of a spire across from him that had been the twin of the one he stood within. But what he viewed had been shattered and ended raggedly at the next lower level. Below, strewn along the shoulder of ground at its base and no doubt tumbled down to be found at the foot of the cliff the manor house sat upon, were scattered massive blocks—ebon with white veins shot throughout—of stone.
When he had arrived the evening before, the scene had been framed by a bloody sunset on the bay behind and below. The upthrust outline of the estate formed a set of jagged teeth ringing the crimson maw of an aged beast, its snarl diminished with one fang broken off, dying but still defiant. He scanned the middle buildings that stretched between the towers. Originally, they must have formed two symmetrical raven wing-like arcs joined at the center body of the main hall with the towers gripped in claws at the end of the wings. Now the stone walls undulated, something had somehow shifted their mass, and they—what remained—no longer perfectly aligned.
It didn’t take that morning’s sunrise to see his inheritance was a ruin. And it didn’t take the sullen, hard-to-understand woman—the decades-long caretaker, he had recently learned about and met last evening—glaring at him to make him feel like an outsider, an intruder in the house and on the land his family had owned for nearly five centuries. Until six months ago, he had never known it existed.
The woman, who had introduced herself last night as Cerridwen Foel, had woken him at dawn by poking him in the chest with the book he now held. Her deep voice had croaked, “Light’s best in the Aerie.” She had cocked a thumb to gesture across the huge hall as she looked him over from toe to head, shaking hers as if disappointed, “eight floors up.”
The evening before—walking him up from the gates she had re-chained after letting him in—she had led him into the manor to a cot, blanket, and lantern awaiting him. But that arc of light had not revealed how large the hall was or the crumbling stone staircase that climbed to a landing at the second floor and then where two sets of steps branched—arms of a Y—and hugged along the walls to climb higher into darkness. Ignoring her, he had limped closer and studied the broad staircase, the ragged edges of the curtail step’s nosing where patches to the original stone had chipped and chunks had broken off. There wasn’t a baluster or side railing for the levels beyond the second-floor landing. The woman’s derisive laugh brought him back to her to raise the heavy sheaf of leather-bound paper—was it paper?—she had thrust into his hands once he had struggled up from the cot. “What’s this?”
She laughed again and turned away toward the main entrance, a lighter shade of darkness with that side of the manor still in sunrise shadow. “If you want to live, best learn what—who—you really face, boy. And if you have any to trust to stand with you.”
In the quiet after her leaving, Brandon walked back to the stairs and looked up. His leg pulsed with pain, that deep ache Walt had told him he would likely never be without until he died. He was getting stronger, but that looked like one hell of a climb and dodgy footing. In one motion, he took a breath and the first step. Minutes later, saying ‘fuck’ and ‘dammit’ nearly every step had not helped, but he had made it to the last level with its single entrance. Breathing heavily and gripping the thigh of his bad leg, he walked through and stopped. The room inside was much large than he expected. The far, west-facing wall was framed with the ubiquitous black stone and inset with heavy, wooden lattice, shutters with cross-bar closures securing them. Near it, off to one side, was a slab on four pedestals—a grayish-grained stone unlike the dark material of the walls—configured as what must be a table. Behind it, cut into the stone wall, two feet above the floor to just below the high ceiling, was row upon row of what must have been intended as bookcases. Except for the table, the room was empty. He crossed to it, footsteps echoing, stood over the slab, and looked down on its chiseled surface, an intertwined V-shape of thorned-vine, not a crest… more a rune… and above it, his family name—what it was before he had changed it—DRAENEN.
Running a hand over it, then tracing the symbol, he wondered about its age. Walking to the shuttered wall, he slid the center bar back, which—designed cunningly—also opened the door to a balustraded terrace that wrapped the western side of the tower. The view almost made the climb worth it. The morning sunlight spilling around him, he lowered his gaze to the old book he held. It seemed older than the family journal he was familiar with from his father and grandfather before him. He opened the book to the front-piece, which contained a replica of what had been engraved in the stone tabletop. After it, there seemed to be several pages torn out with just the remnants still held by the binding. On the first whole page was something he didn’t expect: a yellow sticky note with ‘Begin here’ written in spikey letters, his sister Breanna’s handwriting. He pulled it off and read:
In the broad margin to the right, someone had written:
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried, “La belle dame sans merci
hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
Oppose it, in the left-hand margin, was another yellow sticky from his sister with an arrow pointing at the other margin note, he had just read: ‘Dylan Draenen wrote this (from a John Keats poem) in 1821.’ He turned the page to find a loose one of a drawing with another note from Breanna stuck in its middle: ‘Stop here, do not read more.’ He pulled it off. The image looked like a shield whose frame held two swords piercing a stylized dragon; its head and bent body that ended with a spiked tail.
He didn’t understand what was important about what he had just read or why his sister told him where to stop. An echoing call came from below, a booming voice that carried, “Brandon Draenen…” He shook his head, closed the book and shambled to the steps to head down. Gripping his thigh, he descended. “Fuck this…” he wished he had never left Brooklyn.
• • •
Brandon saw the stocky man standing, his broad back toward him, in the main hall who appeared to study the smoke-stained stone of a massive soot-blackened fireplace. Boots skidding on bits of rock loose beneath him as he stepped down, the crumbled bits of stone rattled and echoed as he kicked them away. The man turned to face him and said nothing as Brandon approached. Closer, he could see the gray threaded in the man’s once-dark shoulder-length hair and seams that lined his weathered face, he must be in his 60s or older. The man was stout but not fat, thick-shouldered, and had the largest forearms Brandon had ever seen on a human being. Dressed in what appeared to be faded dun combat fatigues, he stood with feet planted shoulder-width apart. Bulging on his left thigh was something like a baton, or perhaps an umbrella handle protruding from a deep pocket that reached to just above his knee. Before either man could speak, what had been periodic gusts of wind heard even through the thick walls strengthened and steadied. It didn’t—couldn’t—flex the manor’s exterior walls, but the buffeting thrummed them, a low resonance through the stone. Off to the left, from a part of the estate he had yet to explore, came a soft keening. The sound pulled at him. Without thinking, he turned from the man and took three steps toward it.
“You’ve read it?” The man’s voice was a deep—penetrating—rumble.
“What?” The subdued wail of wind coursing through that other part of the manor tangled his thoughts. He blinked, shuddered, and shifted to face the man again. “Who are you?”
“Lukas Dellarmi,” he pointed at the book in Brandon’s hand, “did you read it?”
“Just the first section, the one marked for me.”
“Ah… your sister. She continues to dole out pieces… she doesn’t want to give you too much to take in,” he mocked, “and you obey her.”
His expression and tone pissed Brandon off. “Listen, I can take anything… and she doesn’t control me. Who the fuck are you?”
The man—Lukas—grinned wider, and that pulled the scar on his right cheek into a curve that ended at his lips. “You don’t understand…”
“Anything,” Lukas shook his head and then swept back iron-gray hair with his left hand revealing that the scar on his cheek continued and bisected the ear, a distinct split. “Of course, you don’t.” He moved closer to Brandon. “That dagger—you read about—lost at Camlann, Carwennan, gave its wielder control over shadows, though the king who died did not know of that aspect of its powers. With that dagger, since that day, one greedy, power-seeking man and the institution he founded has brought upon mankind more pain and suffering than anyone, any government or country… or any god. But then at the root of it all, what he resurrected… an eldritch evil as old as Man… could well have been—be—a false one who plots and acts to become true.”
“I know about the shadows, I’ve fought them.”
Lukas didn’t reply as he studied Brandon and looked long at the young man who had been severely wounded, crippled, and nodded. “You’ve fought a few of them and been tested. Once,” he sighed, “but you still know nothing.” He pointed up. “Did you watch the sunrise from the Crow?”
The non sequitur threw Brandon, who was already confused, even more off-kilter. The hum of the wind still teased a memory, the skein of which he couldn’t knit together. Brandon closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them. “What do you mean ‘the crow?’”
“The Aerie…” Lukas pointed up again. “Stories I’ve heard, tell that the Magpie had the better angle… and view of the bay. And that it held the secret to the vault’s location… but that was lost with its destruction.”
“Magpie? Vault? What in the fuck are you talking about?”
“You curse too much,” Lukas frowned. “Desmond Magpie was Dylan Draenen’s—your ancestor’s—friend… architect and builder. That is until they had a bitter—deadly—falling out. Literally. Desmond brought in the black granite Draenen House was noted for…” he cast a somber glance around him, seeing beyond the hall’s walls. “He designed and built everything here,” his arm swept over what he had just seen without seeing, “and named the two towers. The first, the Crow’s nest, a ship’s highest lookout point, a nod to your ancestor’s seafaring. And second, the Magpie after his name and a similar bird of prey. He—back then, and those who hold his name still—proved… prove to be full of ill-portent.” His eyes came back to Brandon. “Especially for Draenens.”
“My last name is Thorn.”
Lukas’s laugh had a biting edge to it. “A piece of paper—legal foolery—filed in a records hall doesn’t change who you are.”
A lilting voice—the caretaker’s contralto, Brandon thought—interrupted them. But it wasn’t the old woman. A slender figure stood in the portico that opened onto a promenade facing the sea. Sunlight glowed behind and through her thin shirt and cotton skirt. Displaying long legs, clean-lined to flare into wide hips that tapered to a narrow waist. As she shifted her torso a quarter-turn, Brandon saw the thrust of high-set yet full breasts that rose and fell in concert with the seaborne wind that billowed her skirt. Copper tresses caught fire as they blew forward to fall upon the shelf of her chest. He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. The keening had stopped though the wind remained steady. The young woman studied him with the same disdain the old woman had that morning. Now Brandon saw the similarity in their features and knew they must be related. “Who are you?”
“I’m Maeve,” she lifted a covered container he hadn’t noticed, “I said I’ve brought your breakfast.”
Quicker than Brandon thought the man could move, Lukas was between them. His thick, heavily corded hand slipped down to the thigh pocket and gripped the handle. Pulling it out and up, with a snick-snick-snick-click sound, it telescoped into a metal staff as long as Lukas was tall. He spun it and drew back to hold aligned parallel against his thick forearm. Digging his feet in like a batter in the box about to swing at a fastball, he faced the young woman. “Who are you and who sent you?”