(Please note: This is an unedited teaser from a manuscript. There will be typos.)
Smoke curled from the pile of wood stacked at the feet of the condemned. Damien’s brother stood with a human comrade, holding an elderly knight, a leader of their order, whose hands were folded in prayer and eyes were lifted to heaven. The old knight didn’t know what Damien and Otto were. None of their order did. They were knights of Bohemia, sent to serve the Christian God in the holy war. Nameless Templars given to a cause greater than themselves.
In truth, they were Irin scribes, descendants of an angelic race sent by their elders to protect human innocents traveling along the roads to the Holy Land. Pilgrims of any religion, Damien’s small band had watched over them when they traveled, protecting them from a threat lost in legends. Grigori. Sons of the Fallen. Human myth had given them many names. Succubus. Vampire. Demon. They were the dark sons of angels who took and fed from the vulnerable humans, especially the women and children.
Despite that eternal threat, it wasn’t supernatural forces that were killing his brother. The air was acrid with smoke. The crowd jeered as scheming human rulers, fat with gold and titles, watched on.
No, it hadn’t taken the sons of the Fallen to claim the silent scribe now standing in the growing flames. Plain human greed had slain him and those comrades he to refused to abandon.
Otto. Damien mouthed his brother’s name, standing on the edge of the crowd, his plain human clothes and cloak hiding his identity.
The weary scribe shook his head, but kept his eyes on his brother, even as the humans began to cry in fear. Gasped prayers and tearful pleas from the youngest. They were old men and frightened boys. Most of those accused and condemned were innocent of any crime. All were innocent of the crimes they’d been accused of.
Every instinct in Damien cried out to save them.
A hand on his shoulder. “Brother, you agreed.” Stephen, the watcher of the Irin scribe house in Paris, held him back.
“This is not justice,” Damien said through gritted teeth.
“No, Damien, this is human politics.”
He clamped down a guttural cry as he saw Otto’s head fall, the smoke stealing his consciousness before the flames took his body.
“Hold, brother. Give him his peace.” Stephen braced both his hands on Damien’s shoulders and watched as one by one the humans around Otto succumbed to the smoke and the flames grew higher. The crowd grew more volatile.
Otto could have escaped his human captors at any time. He had most of the same spells inked on his body that Damien did, but Otto’s skills of subterfuge were even greater. Otto had tamed his magic so that he moved in shadow, barely a flicker of movement to the normal human eye. He could have passed from the humans’ sight in front of their eyes, leaving them wondering what tricks their minds were playing. Otto was the most feared of their order, the silent blade with eyes that had seen too much.
I am resigned, brother. I cannot return to life as it was. The thought of touching anything pure with these hands is abhorrent. I have found my peace with our human brothers-in-arms, many of whom are honorable men. Send a message to my mother and father that I will see them in the heavenly realm. Do not tell them this was avoidable.
My dear brother, my eyes have seen too much to ever look on that which is lovely again.
You commanded us with honor, despite our orders.
I thank you, but I am resigned.
“Otto.” Old guilt overwhelmed him. Damien’s tears wet his cheeks as the flames reached his brother, licked up the tattered clothes that barely covered the intricate talesm inked on his skin. Hundreds of years of intricate tattoos turned black in the flames. It was those very markings that had made his brother’s so-called-inquisition a forgone conclusion. His quiet brother had been accused of consorting with the devil and practicing magic the humans feared.
Otto’s magic could have slain every human who tortured him, but he didn’t lift a hand in his defense.
Red tinged the corners of Damien’s vision. He felt the black rage rising. The ignorant humans around him jumped and craned to see the humiliation of the once-proud Templars brought to their knees.
Stephan would not be able to hold him back when his rage broke. No one would if he—
A cool hand on the back of his neck. A soothing, delicate female scent and a whispered command in his ear.
“Slemaa.” Peace. The familiar command of a watcher’s mate. Jovana, Stephen’s partner, pressed her cheek to his shoulder, whispering peace over and over as Stephen held Damien’s other arm and shoulder. The Irina singer, as old and powerful as the mother Damien had left behind, worked her magic with her voice as Irin scribes worked it with their pen and ivory tattoo needle.
“Slemaa, Damien,” she whispered again. “Otto is gone now. At peace. Let us get you away from this place. You know you are in danger.”
“Every Templar is in danger,” he said woodenly as they led him away from the bonfire and the teeming crowds.
“You must leave,” Jovana said. “Paris is not safe for you. There is a warrant out from the crown. Your name is known here, and your duke’s connections hold no sway with someone as greedy and power-mad as Phillipe.”
He tried to turn, but their firm hands and urged him onward.
“Stephan has made arrangements. You must go, Damien. Tonight. Immediately.”
The rest of her words were lost in the memory of Otto’s laughter around a campfire. Recollections of when Otto still smiled. When he held children who had been frightened with an equal measure of gentleness and strength. Children had always trusted Otto. He could not touch them for long—none of the scribes could touch humans without hurting them—but his quiet presence had always brought comfort and confidence. Otto was safe.
Ironic since Otto, like Damien, was a master of war.
Over decades of the cursed crusades, Otto had laughed less and less in the camp each night. They all did. The blood, the loss, the waste, had simply been too much. And then they had slain the angel. Born witness to his cruelty. Made impossible choices.
I am resigned.
The only thing Damien felt anymore was guilt and rage. Rage and emptiness and a soul-weariness he knew was leading him to the edge of madness.
My eyes have seen too much to ever look on that which is lovely again.
Hours later, he was packed onto a horse with three Irin scribes and one singer surrounding him, headed for the coast. Jovana reached up, took his hand, and pressed it between her own.
The singer clenched Damien’s hand and he felt her power as it flowed into him, jolting survival instincts that had long surrendered.
“You will go,” Jovana said. “You will heal. You are a warrior, Damien, but you are a scribe first. Find your peace and refill your soul. One day you will fight again. We will need you to fight again.”
He looked down at the delicate brown fingers in his hand. “If I had a singer such as you at my side, I could have taken Damascus and slain every Fallen in the city.”
Jovana smiled. “Then may you be blessed to find a mate as warlike as yourself, brother.”
Stephen stepped to his mate’s side and patted the neck of Damien’s mount. “Is that a blessing, my love, or a curse?”
“A blessing.” Jovana’s eyes lit with quiet humor. “As Damien knows full well.”
“My lady,” Damien bent down and pressed his lips to her fingers. Another pulse of magic. “You do me an honor. Thank you for your care. May the light continue to burn in your house.”
“Return to us as a friend and a blessing,” Stephen spoke the old words. “And may your path be safe before you.”
Jovana and Stephen were smiling when Damien rode away, leaving the light of the scribe house in Paris burning, a warm haven to any Irin in need, tended by the scribes and singers who lived there with their families, caring for travelers and keeping the humans safe from the demons that hunted in the night.
The escort on his right spoke when they were away from the village. “You haven’t even asked where you’re going.”
“Away from here,” Damien said. “Away from battle. And if heaven truly loves me, it will be somewhere warm.”
The scribe smiled, the clean lines of his teeth bright in the waxing moon. “Well, brother, two out of three will have to suffice.”
Copyright 2016, Elizabeth Hunter
All rights reserved.