Prologue – Trell
Trell paced the floor of his study, cell phone still in hand, his thoughts racing. The doctor had said Mable had only a few months to live; six at most, unless the cancer spread faster. As much as Trell hated the thought of his best friend’s wife dying, he knew at her age, there was nothing they could do except make her comfortable. After eight years secretly looking for Elion, she deserved to be at peace.
Had it already been that long?
The task of explaining Mable’s condition to her son, Bill, wouldn’t be a pleasant one, but as her caretaker and friend, it was the least he could do. Trell started punching in Bill’s number and stopped, suddenly wanting a few more minutes to collect his thoughts.
He knew Mable’s wishes—that Bill and his family return to the homestead in the event of her death. That meant dealing with a situation he hadn’t had to be responsible for inyears.
“Damn it,” Trell muttered, rushing over to his writing desk and pulling out parchment. The ink stained his fingers as he uncorked the bottle and took up his quill. He still had the upper hand here, and he wanted to keep it that way.
As the quill scratched out symbols known to only him and the Sages, Trell’s mind raced with possible scenarios, strategies for protecting Elion’s secrets. His secret now, he corrected himself, while he communicated thesudden changes in his post and urgently requested orders.
The study door burst open and the quill tip broke.
“Sir,” Chasky panted, his usual indifference disturbingly absent. “Perimeter alert. Multiple breaches.”
“Do we have a visual?” Trell demanded, pulling out a knife to reshape his quill. Most of the time, the motion sensors were set off by animals and other forest life.
Chasky held up a tablet with a still image of three figures leading horses.
“Those are not Sages,” Trell said, hearing how ludicrous that observation was as it left his lips. It was mid-February, months away from the summer solstice. And no one on a higher learning sabbatical traveled with so many weapons and that much gear. This was no friendly delegation waiting for him to integrate them into this world’s culture.
“Not Sages,” Chasky agreed.
Trell set his quill down,covered the half-finished letter, and darted out of the room, Chasky on his heels.
In the surveillance room, Trell found every camera pointed at the gateway paused on a single image. He checked the time stamp and rewound the video several times to be sure of what he was seeing. Any hope that they might be Sages crumbled as he zoomed in on shadows of three large birds that followed the mysterious horsemen.
Trell’s blood boiled and he couldn’t helpan absent-minded brush of the iridescent lines that ran up his neck. His shoulder still bore the scars of the first giant eagle he’d destroyed. All the trouble he’d gone to exterminating those cold-blooded killers, and there were three more flying out of the cave in broad daylight.
“They have a five-minute lead on us at most,” Chasky said, tossing him a radio.
“Bring the Defender around front. I’ll get the guns,” Trell ordered, catching the radio midair.
“Yes, sir,” Chasky said, disappearing.
Trell ran to the dusty armory that had once been an extra pantry. He passed the almost forgotten swords and various other weapons in the corner, reaching instead for two shotguns and a smaller handgun to strap to his belt. He hadn’t carried a blade in years, and that was fine by him.
His wife’s voice rang out from down the hall. “Body armor!”
Grateful forsuch a sharp woman, he finished filling a bag with ammo and grabbed the vest hanging behind the door.
High-powered binoculars in hand, he raced out the door and met Chasky around the back of the European-styled manor. The old Land Rover pulled up to the barn, and Trell jumped into the passenger seat.
As Chasky slammed the vehicle into gear, Trell noticed that the other man was also wearing body armor. He nodded in approval, the gray in his bodyguard’s hairsuddenly more pronounced as the two men barreled into the forest.
“Do you want to try scaring them off with the vehicle?” Chasky asked as he wound through the trees.
“Get close enough that I can make the rest of the trip on foot, but stay nearby. If they want a fight, you’re my backup.” Trell slid shells into the shot gun and chambered the first round.
They kept the path clear of debris, but years of use didn’t soften the potholes and rocks that emerged with each rainfall. Spring runoff had swelled the few streams they crossed, but it was hardly an obstacle worthy of the Defender’s snorkel. Mud splashed the windshield, and Trell had to brace himself against the seat. Chasky kept both hands on the wheel, making a hard right turn. He stopped just below the ridge line of the next hill.
“Keep this ready.” Trell handed over one of the shotguns. “I’m keepingthe one-way mic on channel three so you’ll hear my signal. Don’t hold back or hesitate.”
“My favorite part.” Chasky grinned. “Fifty bucks says one of them wets himself.”
“If this is that easy, I’ll double it.” Trell’s stomach tightened as he remembered the videos. Something about this group was different. “Keep your eyes open. I don’t want any other surprises today.”
Chasky saluted and Trell exited the SUV. He clickedthe safeties off his guns as he ran for the hilltop. At the crest, Trell scanned the area from behind a thick stand of saplings. Sure enough, in front of the opening of the cave were the three men, consulting a parchment. Trell aimed the military grade binoculars at the man holding the map and took in every tiny detail.
The stranger clutched the reins of a roan stallion that danced behind him, its ears swiveling in an effort to pinpoint the location and threat level of the Defender. With a gloved hand, the man passed control of the steed to one of his companions and shielded his eyes to check the position of the sun, raking dark wavy hair in frustration as he directed his attention back to the map.
A fur-lined hooded cloak hung open at his shoulders, revealing two long blades hanging at his waist. The crossbow, slung over the far shoulder, dropped to his boots as he examined the map closely. And those were only the weapons Trell couldsee.
The other two men, each standing to either side of the map holder, were identically clothed and armed, which made it impossible to pinpoint the leader. Their body language was also deceptive. One didn’t yield to the other in any way that gave up clues as to a hierarchy.
Trell noted the high cheekbones and narrow green eyes of the leaner man on the map holder’s right. He held the reins of a black gelding and moved like a coiled spring, his gestures animated. Thethird man was the tallest and had the bulk of a linebacker. He had amber eyes and warm brown skin and held the reins of a paint mare. He reached back to the roan stallion, and at his touch, the animal stopped snorting and pulling.
The clear, distinct color of their irises, like jewels floating in the milk of their eyes, banished any hope that these were lost backwoods-men from this world. Yet in all his years of watching the entrance, Trell had never seen friend or foe come through the cavern in such gear, and never ones so young. They were nineteen, maybe twenty years old, and were already surveying the clearing like seasoned generals. Taking a calming breath, Trell straightened his shoulders and started down the hill in full view of the trespassers.
The map disappeared as all eyes turned to him. The sound of metal pulled from scabbards rang through the air. Trell counted two daggers and one long sword, but he didn’t stop until he was twenty feetaway. With no way of knowing the deadly force he was packing, the men held their ground.
“You’re lost. Turn around, head back through the caves, and no one dies,” Trell ordered calmly.
“That’s a strange request coming from an unarmed man,” the tall one with amber eyes commented. Trell hadn’t heard that thick of an accent in years.
“It’s not a request,” Trell countered. “It’s your only warning.”
“We’rehappy to go back, as soon as we get what we came for,” the green-eyed man challenged in the same accent.
“And what would that be?” Trell demanded, hoping Chasky was hearing every word through the radio at his hip. He ignored the sweat soaking his under shirt. His finger found the trigger of the shotgun.
The men hesitated, looking to each other as if unsure of what to say. The blue-eyed man in the center measured Trell, sizing him up before he finally spoke.
“The blood call has been answered. We come for the last secret.”
Behind him, Trell heard the Defender’s engine rev. The blacked-out, jacked up, monster-vehicle burst over the hill, catching air before crashing down in a cloud of debris and dirt. Skidding to a stop behind Trell, Chasky threw the switch and sent a half dozen flaming exhausts in a final display of intimidation.
Trell hadn’t given him the signal,but Chasky couldn’t be blamed for reacting to those words that way. He’d never known anyone who dared to speak them aloud. Now there was no way they could let them leave the clearing alive.
The roar of the temporary inferno choked out, and the screams of the horses filled the air. The poor animals were near blind with fear, frantically pulling away from their handlers. Just when Trell thought they were about to break loose and disappear into the trees, the man who’d soothed themearlier shouted a command. The horses calmed immediately, allowing the man to gather them until their noses touched. He turned his back to Trell, and his companions stepped in front of him protectively, their faces unreadable, blue and green eyes cold.
“That’s not how we expected to see our first motor carriage,” Blue Eyes said, his sword going to a defensive position as his courage returned. “So, I’m starting to think you have the wrong impression of us. That could be a problem for you.”
“You condemned yourselves when you spoke the forbidden words,” Trell explained solemnly as he took aim.
Suddenly, blue-gray feathers burst out of the cave behind the horses; the giant eagle swooped down and across Trell’s line of sight. He pulled the trigger. A crack pierced the air, and the thirty-pound bird dropped between them, wings still twitching.
Trusting Chasky would cover him, Trell went to the dyingcreature. An examination of the beast’s body revealed that he’d nearly blown off one wing. But the kill belonged to the dagger lodged deep in the bird’s chest, demonstrating a level of skill and ruthlessness that made Trell’s choice of gun irrelevant. As Blue Eyes stepped forward to reclaim his weapon, Trell ripped off the leather strap holding the half-stone around the bird’s neck and tossed the crystal onto the nearest rock. The butt of his rifle smashed it to pieces.
As he stood to face the men he’d so grossly underestimated, Trell thought of his wife, the warmth in her eyes as she had hummed her favorite song over breakfast, of how that might be their last one together.
The green-eyed young man was clearly struggling to regain his composure, his gaze moving from the dead eagle to the remains of the crystal. “You’re Trell?” His sword wielding friend gave him a warning glance, but he ignored it, his attention on the shotgun in Trell’s hands. “Soren should have warned us about you.”
“Those are not names I would use lightly if I were you,” Trell answered, lifting the shotgun again and cocking it as he took aim at Blue Eyes. All three men immediately lowered their weapons and took a step back. Only two people in the world could have given them his name, and Trell was sure one of them was dead.
“That’s why we spent the last five years earning the right to speakthem,” Blue Eyes explained, his voice echoing the determination Trell saw in all their faces. “We know the oaths that bind their users, and we swore them willingly. We do not use them lightly now.” Very slowly, Blue Eyes lifted his hands to the neck of his tunic and withdrew a chain. The large ring on the end glinted in the sunlight as he lifted it over his head and offered it to Trell. “On our lives, we are here to see this through till the very end.”
Trell motionedfor the man to toss his proof to him and caught it with his free hand. As he studied the object, he couldn’t help glancing between the ring and the young man standing before him. If it was real, if they were who this ring said they were, then not only had Trell threatened an extremely powerful family, he’d nearly killed invaluable messengers. No, it was worse. They had come speaking the words that would start a war.
“I was told you were an ally. Does that still stand, or has this land changed you?” Blue Eyes pressed.
“My allegiance has always been true,” Trell blurted out defensively. Had it been so long that those on the other side didn’t know where he stood anymore? Had his silence been mistaken for something else? He wasn’t about to let possible thieves get past him so easily. “And I’m going to need more than words and a trinket to believe you.”
“I fully understand,” the man stated. “Under thecircumstances, I would expect nothing less.”
Trell tossed back the chain holding the ring. The man slid it around his neck, tucking it back under his tunic. Then he looked Trell in the eyes and said, “How’s Mable’s health?”
Trell stiffened. “How do you know about Mable?”
“A mutual friend said you would be skeptical of us,” the man with the amber eyes added with a strangely familiar shrug. “He wanted to make it clear we are on the sameside.”
If there was one thing Trell knew for sure in this world, it was that Elion hadn’t told anyone beyond the gateway, not the Sages, or Soren—no one—of Mable’s existence. Her name was as good as having Elion vouching for them. Was this part of one of his friend’s old schemes, or did he dare to hope for more?
“I want all your weapons in a pile in front of you. Now!” Trell commanded. The men exchanged looks of disgust. But once Blue Eyes tossed down his sword, the other two followed suit. Trell counted twenty blades hidden on each of them as the pile grew to an absurd height. No wonder they hadn’t scared easily; they were trained throwers. Any one of them could have put a dagger in his throat before he got off a shot. Except for scaring the horses, there had never been a chance of Trell doing much damage before they took him down. They had let him feel in control until they could get him to listen.
“Chasky,”Trell called out without looking behind him. “Put your gun away and call my wife. She’s going to want to know that guests are on their way.”
Trell lowered his gun, holding his hand out as an offering. Blue eyes stepped forward and took it.
“I’m Roah,” he announced confidently and gestured to the shorter of the two men beside him. “This is Tregr.”
Trell shook his hand, noting the green eyes and unique scars on hisneck.
Roah turned to his amber-eyed companion. “And this is Daggon. Both men are just as skilled and dedicated to seeing this through as I am.”
Trell hesitated before stepping forward. Daggon. That name was all too familiar to him.
Daggon handed the horses’ leads to Roah and avoided Trell’s face as he extended his hand, oddly nervous.
Without taking his eyes off Daggon, he addressed the group.
“And as long as you keep your oaths, I will do all I can to assist you,” Trell offered, a thrill of pride surging through him for the first time in years. “Welcome to Virginia.”