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The Crimson SwordBook One of the Legend of Asahiel
By Eldon Thompson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Eldon Thompson
All right reserved.
Midnight shadows filled the forest, spectral images born of moonlight filtering through a thicket of gnarled oak and shagbark hickory, of pine and spruce, of ferns and fronds and slithering ivy. Upon the ground, dark profiles weaved and merged, gathered over twigs and needles in a series of dry pools. Once puddled, the darkness shifted in silent ripples, mimicking the languid motion of branches and leaves swaying overhead in a late summer breeze.
At the edge of one such pool, standing just within the sifted radiance of a pale moon, a mouse lifted its head to sniff the scented air. Whiskers wriggled atop its nose, brushing the air with ceaseless anticipation. Its heart beat furiously within its chest. The creature glanced quickly to one side, then the other, then looked back to the small grain seed clutched in its paws. Once, twice, it nibbled experimentally, turning the morsel over, testing it from either end. Finally, it cast the seed aside and reached for another.
A sudden shadow fell over it. The mouse squealed as iron talons pierced its flesh, a sharp squeak of fear and surprise. Before it could draw another breath, its chest collapsed beneath a crushing grip as it was hoisted freeof the earthen floor.
The owl bore its twitching meal skyward, winging its way through a labyrinth of dark trees.
The Shadow watched the owl's flight and remained hidden, eyes and ears probing the darkness. But the attack had been perfect. Almost immediately, the shrill echoes of the mouse's cry were lost to the wind, and what remained of life within the forest went about its business without notice or concern. The Shadow permitted itself a private smile. Perfect.
It detached itself from its concealment then, peeling from the trunk of a nearby birch like a strip of bark. It cast north and south, crouched low, searching for a response to its movement. Detecting none, it resumed course, a shimmer amid the trees. Like the owl, it flew upon wings of death, slipping through the foliage without a whisper to mark its passing. Rodents scurried from its path; trees shuddered in a gust of wind. Made anxious by its ghostly presence, nature recoiled, finding safe quarter from which to watch and wait out the trespasser's foul purpose.
It helped the Shadow to think in such exaggerated terms, to distance even itself from its true identity, to imagine itself a creature of supernatural origin and prowess. It fancied itself a fiend among children, pitiless, as inexorable as death itself.
Unhindered, it slid into a copse at the fringe of the forest. Less than a hundred paces to the south, down a gently sloping hill, loomed a forbidding shape, a wall outlined against the night by the pale wash of moon and stars. The Shadow's gaze swept the wall's surface, a skin ravaged by mosses and ivy and crumbling mortar seams. Despite its weathered appearance, the stone structure towered over the land. A trickle of a moat ringed its base, little more than a stream of sewage headed for the nearby Royal River. Most importantly, only a single sentinel stood watch upon this section of the rampart, one who, amazingly enough, appeared to be dozing while leaning upon his rusted pike.
Without further hesitation, the Shadow dashed from its cover, plunging into the knee-deep prairie grass that carpeted the hillside. It crossed the clearing in a crouch, leapt the putrid stream, and came to rest against the cold stone of the castle wall. With only a slight breeze to mark its passing, it need not have paused to ensure that it had not been spied. But the Shadow wore caution as a soldier would his heavy armor, a coat of arms enmeshed over limbs and joints, impossible to remove without concerted effort, and shed not a moment before the battle was won. Caution shielded against overconfidence, which often led to mistakes. And in a contest such as this, a single mistake could grant passage into death's domain. So the Shadow made none.
An army of crickets chirped in shrill cadence. Farther off, an owl hooted deep within the woods. Nearby, the waters of the moat lapped against their earthen banks. But the Shadow's presence, draped flat against the wall, remained undetected.
Secure in this thought, the Shadow turned to face the unyielding stone, producing a coiled length of slender rope from within its cloak. To one end was fastened a tiny, three-pronged grapnel, its metal hooks wrapped in cloth to help quiet any sound and guard against the reflection of light. With deft movements, the Shadow sent the hook hurtling to the top of the crenellated battlement some ninety feet overhead. The throw was true. A muffled clank echoed upon the wind as the hook swung around a crumbling merlon and bit like a serpent into the resisting stone.
Below, the Shadow waited, a tiny crossbow poised to bury its bolt into the unsuspecting face of any curious sentry. But once again, its caution proved unnecessary, as a sudden snore broke the near silence.
The crossbow vanished, and a pair of daggers appeared. After spinning them in its fingers, the Shadow placed the blades in its mouth. Seizing the threadlike rope, the invader tested its hold before beginning to climb.
The Shadow breezed up the monstrous structure, running skyward along the wall while pulling hand over hand upon the rope. Upon reaching the top, the Shadow swung skillfully between two moss-covered merlons, drew the daggers from its mouth, and buried each to its hilt in the throat of the oblivious guardsman. Slumping to the ground within a shadowed alcove, the sentry fell silently into a sleep from which he would never awake.
Pausing briefly to draw a breath, coil its rope, and retrieve its blades, the Shadow turned and raced along the battlement, down a flight of lichen-covered steps, and into the city below ...
Excerpted from The Crimson Sword by Eldon Thompson Copyright © 2006 by Eldon Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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