The Dark Ages—a time of great turmoil and the collision of empires!
As the Frank kingdom prepares for war, Roland, young heir to the Breton March, has been relegated to guard duty until a foreign emissary entrusts him with vital word of a new threat to the kingdom. Now Roland must embark on a risky journey to save all he loves from swift destruction.
And yet while facing down merciless enemies, he must also reveal the hand of a murderer who even now stalks the halls of power and threatens to pull apart a kingdom reborn under the greatest of medieval kings, the remarkable Charlemagne.
For Roland to become the champion his kingdom needs, he must survive war, intrigue and betrayal. The Silver Horn Echoes pays homage to "La Chanson de Roland" by revisiting an age of intrigue and honor, and a fateful decision in the shadows of a lonely mountain pass—Roncevaux!
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Lord of the March
Neustria Spring, AD 801
Thick clouds leaked gray mist into the air, chilling the bones of the dour folk laboring to prepare the fields for the season's crops. Thick-sinewed men guided plows drawn by stout Frank horses to turn over last year's rutted furrows before nightfall as their wives and children scattered handfuls of seed in their wake.
A crude track ran through the patchwork, reaching from the distant choppy sea to a motte-and-bailey keep built atop earthen ramparts overlooking the hinterlands. Over the main gate, two pennants dueled in the desultory breeze. The first, a brilliant white banner emblazoned with a crimson wolf, sign of the late William, former count of Breton March, snapped defiantly. The other bore a white lily on a blue field, the personal standard of Ganelon, count of Tournai and, by order of the king, master of the march since William's death.
Within the wooden bastions rose the clang and clatter of freemen training for the call to arms, whether to repel roving sea-wolves in their low-slung wooden longships or renegades who ventured across the ill-defined borders of the Bretons. The men of the march drilled even this late in the day with oval shield and sword, working shield-to-shield in tight formations or training alone with wooden wasters against a battered stump sticking up from the earth.
At the rear of the courtyard, considerably different sounds drifted through the spring air from the optimistically named great hall — a mixture of laughter, clanking mugs, and barking of errant dogs begging for scraps. Smoke poured from the chimney of the adjoining kitchen where serving girls in woolen skirts and jackets crowded the open door to collect skins of dark Frank wine and platters filled with meat. Those waiting their turn warmed hands by the ovens and chattered about the young nobles carousing inside the hall until they could rush back to the celebration laden with the spoils of nobility — steaming joints of venison and boar, local-grown leeks and onions, and chunks of crusty bread.
Once back in the hall's torch-lit interior, the chaotic cacophony broke over them like crashing waves of a turbulent sea. Young men reveled with laughter and tussled one with another to impress both their fellows and the girls refilling their plates and cups. Broken strains of music fought to be heard over the noisome chorus from musicians plucking on well-worn instruments and singing in ragged voices that thumbed their noses at harmony. But no one cared, for the drink flowed and the food steamed from the kitchen. Thus the musicians were left to pursue their obscure tunes from unknown taverns without regard for anyone's standards of artistic merit.
A larger table stood at the center of the hall, crowded with young bravos dressed in their finest peacock and jostling for attention from the vibrant young man who sat at the head. This youth tore at a joint with strong teeth and then washed it down with a draught from his cup. His cheeks were flushed, his strong-jawed face framed in a wild thicket of dirty blond locks. Over his fine linen shirt he wore a wine-stained woolen surcoat bearing the crimson wolf. One after another, the young nobles shouted bawdy jokes, and he lifted a cup in recognition to each in turn, his ready smile breaking into willing laughter. A fresh-faced serving girl feigned outrage at the humor until he turned his keen northern blue eyes on her. She took notice and leaned close so that her bodice opened to view. He pulled her onto his lap. The wineskin in her hands sloshed when she settled against him. She dropped it onto the table and raked her hands playfully through his tousled hair.
In the doorway, a figure outlined in fading sunlight shook out a long cloak. He was a tall youth who bore a sober look that was out of place in the festivities, his face framed by dark hair trimmed short for wear beneath a helmet. His traveling clothes were of a fine cut, but mud clung to them, particularly from his boots to his knees. The serious bearing on his tanned face dissolved when his eyes rested on the young man at the head of the table still playfully tugging at the servant girl amid the chaos.
"Roland!" he shouted. He threw his cloak over a stool and strode across the room, dodging servants and carousing nobles alike.
"Oliver, come in!" the blond youth replied. "Have a drink! Fill your belly!" With a pinch of the girl squirming on his lap, he continued, "You've just arrived?"
"Oh, yes," Oliver said, planting a foot on the adjoining chair. "See? I still wear the mud from the road." He swiped a cleaner stool from under another reveler and swung it next to Roland at the table. "And how is our fair Eleanor today?"
The girl flashed Oliver a smile and pursed her lips flirtatiously.
"I've been missing you, of course," she said, tossing her flaxen locks.
Oliver winked in response. "Of course you have, my dear. It's been too long since I've visited. Do you mind if I take a moment with Roland?" Eleanor pouted, her lips moist and red, but she wriggled free from Roland and kissed Oliver on the cheek.
"Of course," she said. "Brothers in arms first!"
As she sauntered away, her hips moving to a seductive rhythm with each step, Roland leaned over to Oliver and whispered conspiratorially, "It seems you only attract virtuous kisses, my friend."
"Oh, you're just jealous because she'll be thinking of me long into the night," Oliver replied, reaching across the table to grab a cup and a dripping joint of meat.
Roland slapped Oliver on the back.
"Honestly, I don't care who she's thinking of as long as I'm the one in her bed!"
Oliver tore at the meat with his teeth. "You know," he said around a mouthful of venison, "I've ridden all this way, and you still haven't told me what you're celebrating."
"It's my birthday, of course!" Roland replied.
"It's not your birthday."
"But it will be. Someday."
Oliver pushed Roland in friendly exasperation, unsettling his friend's wobbly stool and making him jostle the arm of another youth. Wine splattered over the other man's gold-trimmed tunic.
"Hey! Have a care!" he growled, shoving back. Then the young man plucked a wineskin off a passing tray and poured the dark liquid into Roland's lap.
"Scoundrel!" Roland cried. "Is that any way to treat your host?"
He launched himself from his chair, toppling the other youth onto the table. They locked into a wrestler's embrace amid the platters of meat and pastries and kicked food on the other revelers as they struggled for advantage. They rolled off the table and into the rushes on the floor. Within moments, others, both human and canine, were joining the fracas in a flailing mass of limbs and tails.
In an open doorway, Gisela, Roland's mother and sister to King Charles, paused in shock, slender hand raised to her mouth. She was elegant and beautiful in a way that being great with child only enhanced, and normally carried herself with unshakable poise — but not now. Color rose to her cheeks, for, even knowing her son's habits, the scene before her was extreme. Ganelon, her husband, stepped from behind her into the doorway, his hawkish eyes quickly taking stock of the room and his thin-lipped mouth tightening in anger. He was a lean man of two score and ten summers, yet the close-cropped beard on his angular and stern face was dark like a much younger man's. A warrior of great renown within the circles of power at Aachen, now brother-in-law to King Charles himself, his marriage had brought him a wayward stepson and the leeching spawn of hedge knights about the region. His cheek twitched with pent-up anger.
In the deeper shadows of the hallway, Ganelon's personal steward of many years, the spidery Father Petras, hovered near his lord's shoulder, a specter in brown clerical homespun.
"Hard coins wasted on debauchery," Petras noted coldly. He rubbed at his bald head and with his other hand sharply traced the cross on his sunken breast. "God have mercy on us all for permitting this."
"Your son will make paupers of us with these incessant drinking binges!" Ganelon spat at Gisela. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand.
"He's just compensating for his loss," Gisela replied with a cautious demeanor. "His father meant the world to him."
"You coddle him too much," Ganelon snorted. "It must stop!"
He stalked into the hall and pulled Roland out of the midst of the scrum of bodies, fists, and feet.
"Enough!" Ganelon shouted above the noise. "Enough already! There will be no more paying for your games!"
Roland wriggled free, straightened, and offered the other youth a hand to his feet.
"You know," Roland muttered to his fellow celebrant, "he pays for nothing here." He grabbed a cup of wine and stepped in a haughty fashion from floor to bench up to the table. He strode the length of the tabletop, placing his feet between upturned plates, scattered cups, and drunken bodies, raising the cup and urging other revelers to do likewise.
"A toast to Ganelon! The lord of the march, by the king's own decree! We owe him thanks for our supper!"
One of the young nobles shouted, "The wolf speaks! Listen to the wolf!"
The other attendees drunkenly got to their feet and toasted Ganelon in a chorus of profanity. Gisela swept through them to her husband.
"I'll not stand for his insults," Ganelon growled, his face darkening.
"Please, have some understanding," Gisela pleaded. "He's my son. Come away, husband. They will sleep it off, and all will be well."
The count grabbed her face in his hands, forcing her to meet his piercing steel eyes. "I need you to stop protecting him!"
Roland, still holding his cup aloft, sauntered back down the table's length toward them, his face set like a reveler's mask. His companions' chatter died as he stopped to stand over his mother and stepfather.
"As you all know," he said unsteadily, "my father lies cold in the grave, God rest his sainted soul. And yet this man keeps my mother very warm. Let us drink to the pleasures of the living, at the expense of the dead!" He drained his cup in a suddenly uncomfortable silence.
Ganelon pushed Gisela roughly against a chair. One of the older kitchen maids cried out and rushed to her aid.
Ganelon ignored them. Instead he drew his sword, the blade glimmering dully in the firelight.
"No!" Gisela begged, grabbing at Ganelon's arm. "Please, he meant no harm!"
"I've had quite enough, son or not!" Kicking a dog aside, he leaped onto the table with a murderous grace.
Roland threw his cup at his stepfather and danced backward across the tabletop. Ganelon advanced through the remains of the feast, knocking scraps to the floor where the hounds eagerly pounced upon them. Roland snatched up a butcher's knife from a tray and lunged, tapping Ganelon's blade aside and driving inward. But he took a drunken misstep and spared Ganelon's throat by a hair's breadth. The count recovered and struck Roland with the back of his free hand, and then the guests scattered to avoid the sudden fury of the swinging sword, the stabbing knife, and the battling fists.
Ganelon lowered his shoulder, driving hard against Roland's midsection. The youth stumbled over the edge of the table to sprawl onto the rush-covered floor. Dogs yowled and scrambled out of the way. Ganelon thrust his sword into the table's planks, leaped down after Roland, and pinned the younger man to the floor, grabbing his face in one hand.
"I've killed wolves before," he hissed breathlessly. "What's another to me?"
Roland's eyes widened. "What did you say?" He struggled under the older man's iron grip.
A shadow loomed over them and blotted out the torchlight. Oliver wrapped his arms around Ganelon, pulling him from Roland, and other guests rushed to intervene.
The count angrily shrugged Oliver off. Glaring at the human rampart assembling between him and his quarry, he straightened his clothes and threw back his shoulders. "We will speak of this later, stepson." He stalked out of the hall with Petras and Gisela in his wake.
"Be careful," Oliver advised Roland as they watched them go. "He speaks on behalf of the Crown."
Roland shook the last drunken cobwebs from his head then grabbed his friend's shoulder.
"No. He speaks only for himself."
As the chilled night blanketed the keep, dreams did not come easily to Roland.
His bedchamber was spartan, more by choice than necessity. Roland preferred the open skies rather than the keep's constricting walls. Only a spilled chalice on the tabletop dripping wine onto the floor marked it as his — that and Eleanor sleeping quietly amidst the tangled covers. But Roland tossed restlessly, even in his dreams unable to find peace.
A shape emerged from the darkness at the end of the bed, a wavering shadow of twisting smoke that resolved into the form of a man with features reminiscent of the boy in the bed — a strong face, with a set jaw that had come from a lifetime of staring down violence and death without flinching. William, once count of Breton March and champion of the realm, obscured the moonlight that streamed through the nearby window, not so much blocking it as absorbing the rays. In a hushed rasp, his lips huffed words as if on a chilled winter wind.
"I've killed wolves before."
Roland awakened with a start, his body shaking and chilled with sweat. Eleanor stirred from her sleep and rolled toward him, wrapping him in her arms.
"Another nightmare?" she ventured in a sleepy whisper, her fingers instinctively caressing his chest.
Roland nodded and set her arms aside. He threw the covers over her lithe body.
"Not right now," he said. "I'm sorry."
He walked over to the window and rested his elbows on the sill. He took in a deep breath of the crisp night air.
"Dear God," he whispered, "take my father to thy rest. And leave me to mine."
He snatched his tunic from the floor, and stepped out of the room.
The family chapel, unlike the rest of the fortifications, was built from finely hewn stone chinked with genuine mortar. Inside the cramped space, guttering candles provided only the barest illumination.
In an adjoining room, the parish priest awoke at the opening of the outer door. He scrambled from his bed, gathered his robes about him, and glanced out the window at the westering moon. Through his bleary eyes, he saw Roland standing in the chapel's open doorway, the youth's eyes haunted. The priest rushed to prepare the room, but Roland did not wait. The young knight took a guttering nub from the candle stand near the doorway, carried it around the bustling priest to the altar, and set it onto a wax-covered plate before touching each point of the cross on his person and sinking to his knees. The priest, taking this cue, set down the offering tray in his hands and quietly backed into his bedchamber.
Roland clasped his hands and bowed his head. He took a deep breath. "Heavenly Father, it's been a very long time since I've ventured here to share my thoughts with you. Even now, I don't know where to begin ..."
Next to Roland, William's figure gathered substance from the shadows once again. Though dark emotion hardened his face, his features softened when his unfathomable eyes fell upon his son. "And yet to be the sword of your king, you must be conversant with your God, my son."
The familiar voice tore at Roland's heart. The youth raised his eyes and regarded his father's shade. Then he looked down at the floor. "First you haunt my dreams, Father, and now my waking hours as well? Am I to take your place as his champion? That is a hard thing to require."
"Sometimes we are required to do difficult things, my son — to be honorable in the sight of God and your king. I beseech you, take up this task."
"It must first be offered, Father. Surely there are great nobles who are better respected. And the way Ganelon lords it around the march like he's my wet nurse, no one will take me seriously in any case."
William raised a hand, withered and gaunt, not vibrant and firm as Roland remembered from when he had been alive. "You are to be Charles's sword, the champion of God. There is no other choice for Charles to make. It is ordained."
Roland shook his head and rubbed at his eyes. "God could have chosen more wisely. Someone worthy of His call."
William shook his head, a weariness spreading across his features as his form lost substance and dissolved. "He knows what He is doing. Trust in Him and act."
The door creaked open once more, and a gust of air dissipated the last of William's visage. Oliver entered the chapel and paused.
"There you are, my friend," he said, loosening his cloak from about his shoulders and tossing it across a stool. "Who were you talking to?" Roland smiled wanly.
"No one. I was just having a reading session with your bookish priests."
Excerpted from "The Silver Horn Echoes"
Copyright © 2017 Michael Eging; Steve Arnold.
Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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