|Publisher:||Lyrical Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.57(d)|
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The Brotherhood of Fallen Angels
By Heather Grothaus
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Heather Grothaus
All rights reserved.
February 1181 Melk, Austria
The sudden rapping on his chamber door caused Adrian to flinch. He looked immediately to the small man hunched over his lower abdomen, but Song had already raised his hands away with his typical quick grace and sat back on his heels. The faint, rhythmic pain in Adrian's body faded with the Chinese man's retreat, but irritation at being interrupted caused his temples to pound.
The rapping sounded again, and then an accented voice called through the thick wood of the door. "Ad — Brother Adrian?" the voice corrected, and Adrian could see in his mind the Spaniard rolling his eyes at the enforced title. "It is I, Brother Valentine."
Adrian raised himself up from the mattress on his elbows and scowled toward the door. "What do you want, Valentine?"
"There is a —" Valentine Alesander broke off, and his next words were muffled, as if he pressed his face close to the seam of door and stone wall. "Actually, I would prefer no to have this conversation in the corridor."
"I'm busy. I shall see you at supper." Adrian lay back down and motioned toward Song to resume his task. The Chinese monk leaned over Adrian's hips.
The chamber door rattled against the bolt, causing Song to once more calmly retreat and Adrian to sigh without quite the same easy acceptance.
"Victor sent me," Valentine said pointedly from the corridor. "Why do you have a lock on your door? No one else has a lock on their door."
Adrian ignored the question but gained one elbow to look toward the small, serene man whose eyes fixed upon Adrian's naked torso. "I'm sorry. Can you finish?"
Song nodded his smooth head once.
Adrian turned his face toward the door. "I'll be a moment."
"It is no trouble. I will wait."
Adrian collapsed back onto the bed and raised his forearm to lay it across his eyes. He felt the coolness of the sides of Song's palms against his skin, the faint vibrations of the monk's ministrations in the muscles of his abdomen.
He barely noticed when it was over. The mattress shifted slightly as the spare man backed down from the bed, rolling the tools of his secret and forbidden trade into a small bamboo mat. Adrian rose and swung his legs over the side of the bed, looking down at his nakedness, then raised his eyes to Song.
The Chinese bowed and then swept a downward-facing palm through the air.
"No more?" Adrian asked, looking down again. He felt hot prickles behind his eyes as he surveyed his raw and bleeding skin. But he needn't have asked because the proof was before him.
Song had fulfilled his promise.
When he looked up, the silent monk was walking toward the door. Adrian stood and attended the lacings of his chausses. "You must allow me to repay you," he said, tucking in the ties and then reaching for his undershirt.
Song paused with a half turn and shook his head. No.
Adrian swept his shirt over his head. "I insist," he said as he emerged through the neck hole. "Perhaps some herb, or ... coin? What do you have need of?"
Adrian expected only continued silence from the Chinese man, and so he was surprised when Song seemed to consider the offer Adrian had put forth. He raised his face to regard Adrian directly, and the tilt of his dark, sparkling eyes gave him an elfin look.
"You must live to fulfill your purpose," he said, his voice as low as a whisper but with no hint of breathiness. "It is only my duty to give you the protection of the old ones. The honor of it is payment enough." He bowed again before reaching for the door.
Adrian might have been touched by the quiet man's concern had it not shamed him to admit that he needed Song's ignorant charms to protect him against scars that were terrifyingly real — both physically and mentally.
He held the door open while Song gave Valentine his own small bow and then moved past him down the corridor on silent, sandaled feet. Adrian ignored the Spaniard's raised eyebrows as he turned back into the barren cell to retrieve his long brown habit from a peg in the wall. It was the only bit of decoration in the stone chamber.
"Why shouldn't I have a lock on my door?" Adrian asked instead. "You have a lock on your door."
"I do," Valentine acquiesced. "But I also have a secret wife in an abbey full of monks." His ever-present smirk deepened as he tossed a glance out the door and into the corridor where Song had disappeared. "Perhaps I am no the only one to have a secret, yes? Song is very petite. Although I always imagined you with someone less" — he rolled one hand in the air as if searching for the right word — "bald."
Adrian pulled his head through the habit and then turned to reach for his cincture. He drew up the yards of brown wool around his hips, securing it carefully below his tender skin. "You have a message?" he prompted, not willing in that moment to engage the Spaniard in repartee.
"Victor has called a meeting," Valentine said, his eyes catching on the squares of blood-smeared linen left on Adrian's thin mattress. "There has been some word. Adrian, are you injured?"
"No. Perhaps your wife's inquiries have seen early success."
"Hmm," Valentine murmured, his gaze still studying the bloody scraps of cloth. "Then what is —"
"When and where?" Adrian asked.
Valentine at last dragged his face toward Adrian's. "Now, of course. I do no need to tell you where."
Thankfully, the Spaniard's inquisition ceased once he and Adrian were in the corridor. It was not the first time Adrian had been grateful for Melk's enforced silence, and he utilized the time it took to maneuver through the abbey's corridors on the way to the library to form a hypothesis about the news Victor would impart.
Valentine's wife, Mary Beckham, had sent a score of identical letters chronicling the facts of her husband's and his friends' entrapment to the most powerful contacts in the English and Christian Holy Land rule. The missives were to gain their destinations by a circuitous route, first traveling to Vienna to be handed off to Father Victor's trusted compatriots and then scattering across the map as letters contained within letters, visiting tens of burgs and switching bearers countless times before reaching the hands each were intended for. Adrian wondered, though, that they could be receiving good news in such a short span of time. The messages had only left Melk two months earlier.
He fidgeted with his cincture, which had ridden up and was now rubbing against his skin. Valentine's keen eyes caught the movement, and Adrian could tell that his curiosity was straining at its lead once more. Fortunately, they were just passing the wide stone archway that housed the set of shallow steps leading to the abbey's lower levels, and some beast from below chose that moment to send a bloodcurdling scream ricocheting up the stone passage.
The men exchanged glances but of course said nothing, and Valentine's interest in Adrian's discomfort was effectively interrupted.
They neared the entry hall of the abbey, and after glancing around to be certain there were no witnesses, Valentine took the lead and stepped up onto a stone pedestal where a ten-foot-tall statue of St. Michael seemed to be keeping watch over the guardhouse beyond the gate. The Spaniard slipped into the dark arch of what appeared to be no more than a shallow inset behind the statue, but the depression was only an illusion; the stones were actually set back nearly two feet from the surrounding arch, and in truth it was this hidden opening that the archangel protected.
Although Adrian estimated the statue to weigh several tons; one man laying his weight to a certain wind-tossed fold at the rear of Michael's heavenly garment would cause the angel to tilt backward, his wide wings effectively sealing off the secret entrance to the even more secret chamber above.
Adrian quickly followed Valentine into the tight-winding stone staircase, which widened after the first turn just enough to accommodate the width of a man. But the stones still brushed both Adrian's shoulders with every step, and the feeling of imprisonment made his already inflamed skin crawl. There was no light source, so that by the time Adrian had taken ten steps, he and Valentine were ascending in pitch blackness. It was only for a pair of moments though, and then Adrian heard Valentine's huff of breath as he pushed at the door at the pinnacle of the stairs.
The stone slab moved soundlessly, and as Adrian passed into the secret library and slowly swung the massive entry shut, he marveled as always at the ingenious hinge on which it hung. Removing one small iron pin would cause the entire slab to settle fully into the deep groove in the floor, wedging into the invisibly tapered stone jamb, where it could never again be opened.
Trapping humanity's knowledge — and its noble but unfortunate savior — inside for an unknown eternity.
A quick glance around the room affirmed that all were gathered at the table that dominated the secret library. Valentine took his usual seat nearest the door, next to the huge blond Norseman. Roman, once Adrian's stone master at Chastellet, sat turning a smooth obelisk of granite in his fingers. Roman shared his side of the table with Melk's abbot, Victor, who studied his folded hands. Constantine sat opposite Valentine, with his back toward the one window of the library. His wide shoulders were hunched as his forearms braced him on the table, his head hanging.
It had become his common stance since just before the first snowfall, when he'd learned that his wife and son had been murdered. As if he could barely muster the strength to remain upright under his burden of grief, the once formidable general of Chastellet appeared beaten.
None of the men looked up at Adrian and Valentine's arrival, although Roman did give Valentine a sideways glance that, had Adrian been in a more generous mood, he might have taken the time to interpret. But as it was, with being interrupted and still experiencing a good deal of discomfort from Song's labors, the only things Adrian was interested in were his separate chair next to the window beyond Constantine and the decanter atop the nearby side table. He seized the second and lowered himself carefully into the first, picking up the cup he'd left on the stone sill that morning and filling it with rich red wine.
He had drunk half the wine and still the library was stuffed with its muffled silence. It was unusual for the old abbot to summon the men during the light of day — they typically only came together after the evening prayers had faded away with the incense and the other monks were abed. Obviously something of import had occurred, but Adrian was not in a hurry to hear whatever it was. The library was his haven, and unused as he was to sharing it, he was content enough to let the quiet stand.
He moved his cup to his left hand and picked up the manuscript of philosophy he'd laid on the sill earlier, his place between the vellum pages marked by one of Lou's cast-off tail feathers. It then crossed Adrian's mind that he'd not seen the hunting falcon upon entering the library, and he deduced that Roman had been summoned in such a hurried fashion that he'd been forced to leave Lou behind in the mews.
This realization caused Adrian to raise his eyebrows for a moment, but then he rested the book on his thighs and grasped the hard rib of the feather, using it as a lever to find where he'd left off. He'd read halfway down the page of minuscule text, painstakingly translating the Greek characters, when Victor at last spoke.
"I had a visitor today," the abbot began in his usual quiet voice, although his tone was even more subdued and measured than usual. "In the red confessional."
Adrian's eyes came to pause over the word µ?st? ó.
A visitor to the red confessional could mean only one thing: Someone had come to Melk bearing one of Chastellet's gold coins, which Father Victor had distributed to confessors the world over. If anyone's sins or problems could be traced back to the massacre at Jacob's Ford, and the framing of the four men now in hiding at Melk, they would be directed to the abbey on the Danube.
The red confessional was the place where Mary Beckham had come seeking help, and she had led Valentine directly to the betrayer of Chastellet — and the accuser of the four — Glayer Felsteppe.
Although the news roused Adrian's interest, he wondered of what import the visitor could truly be. After all, Valentine had pierced Glayer Felsteppe through the heart. He could cause no further damage than what he'd already accomplished before his death.
From where Adrian sat, trapped inside a broken body ruled by a withering mind, it was more than enough.
As if all the men's thoughts mirrored Adrian's own, no one prompted the abbot for details or made guesses as to the visitor's identity, letting Victor take his time.
"The lady-in-waiting to the queen of a small pagan island kingdom off the northern Scots coast," Victor said in the same measured tone.
"Another woman?" Adrian blurted out and looked up from his page, unable to contain his irritation. Blasted women. Always muddling things with emotion and need and want. Confounding issues with sentiments and frivolous desires. "I do hope this one isn't looking for an errant husband as well, else I'll be tempted to believe you've sent forth love potions rather than gold, Victor."
Adrian could feel Valentine's scowl on the back of his head, and it made him smirk. He raised his cup again.
"It's actually the island's king who is missing."
Adrian snorted. "I knew it. So the queen is the one with the errant husband. Can they not keep track of their men?"
"No, no — the queen's deposed brother," Victor corrected. "The royal family experienced a coup of sorts some months ago." He sounded deeply disturbed. "I am not being clear. Forgive me. I was not expecting such a thing, and it has confused my thoughts." The abbot took a breath. "Queen Maighread was encouraged to steal the throne by a foreigner, promising her military protection for her home, which has withstood several conquering attempts in history for its rich resources and position as a stronghold. Similar offers had been made to the king for years from various municipalities, but he always refused, choosing to keep his people autonomous from a larger rule."
"The foreigner, he is English," Valentine surmised.
"Indeed," Victor said. "After the queen gained control, her supposed benefactor then changed colors, demanding the sum of the kingdom's fortune by the time he returns by ship after the seas thaw, else the army that accompanies him will seize control of the island rather than protect it."
Adrian shut his book in disgust. "I regret that I have little sympathy for this queen thus far. She is reaping what she's sown. I say tell the maid to return to her queen with the advice that she hand her fortune of peat and goats over to this challenger so that she — and we — may be left out of it."
"That is the crux of what spurred her maid to flee the island; even if Queen Maighread wished to pay the fortune, no one has been able to locate it thus far."
"Good for the king," Adrian muttered. "I only hope he's gotten himself off to a pleasant, civilized city."
"The king didn't take it, Adrian. The fortune is said to be hidden somewhere within the royal castle," Victor supplied.
"Oh, come now, Victor," Adrian demanded, at last swiveling in his chair despite his discomfort to address the room. "Said fortune is likely only threepence stuck to the wall with some daub behind a tapestry. This has nothing to do with us."
Like the sound of an ancient tree creaking from the strain of a mighty wind, Constantine's voice at last emerged from his hunched posture. "What is this kingdom called, Victor?"
The abbot's mouth thinned, as if his body wanted to prevent its speaking. "Wyldonna."
Adrian threw back his head and began to laugh. In truth, it was the perfect answer. "Oh, Father — I'm afraid you've been had."
But Constantine obviously failed to see the humor, as his voice remained raspy and devoid of any mirth. "Victor, Wyldonna is a myth."
Victor nodded, his thin cheeks growing ruddy. "I have heard the tales myself."
"Wyldonna?" Valentine repeated.
Excerpted from Adrian by Heather Grothaus. Copyright © 2015 Heather Grothaus. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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