Champion of the Heart – Prologue
Dark demons cast by the dying fire in the hearth danced over the cold stone walls of the solar room. Lord Frederick Mercer sat on the bed, lifting his arm to tighten the straps of his plate armor. Beside him, Michael shifted his position, bowing his blond head. Fox, five years older than Michael, paced the floor before the bed.
“I don’t understand, Father.” Fox Mercer looked at his father with confused eyes. He was thirteen, but today he had enough pain in his heart and enough torment in his soul for a man five times his age. “Just tell the king who did it.”
“I can’t, Fox,” Frederick Mercer said, bending to slip his booted foot into a spur. He was quiet for a moment, staring at his boot. “I can’t.” He reached for his other boot and slid it on.
Fox paced the drafty room, desperately searching for a way out of the terrifying predicament his father was in. For a brief, horrifying moment the shadows of the waning fire took on the shape of an executioner, his face masked in a dark hood, his thick arms clutching an enormous axe. Fox quickly looked away from the black silhouette on the wall. No one was worth this sort of protection, not with such disastrous consequences. Fox’s gaze fell on his younger brother. Michael sat on his father’s bed, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed. His brother’s blond hair hung forward to obscure his face. Michael had been quiet for days now, unnaturally silent.
The chink of chainmail made Fox turn back to his father. As he looked at the man who raised him, who gave him a home, who always gave him hope for the future, he clenched his teeth, making his jaw ache with the effort. His small fingers clenched into fists so hard it made his arms shake. Why would his father give up everything to keep the identity of a murderer secret? Fox began to pace again. He moved back and forth, back and forth, fighting to keep his emotions in check, fighting to remain calm just as his father had taught him.
But today this was a battle Fox would not win. He stopped and whirled to face his father. “Don’t you care about what happens to us?” he asked in agony.
Lord Mercer straightened in his chair. “Of course I do. I care…” He took a deep breath. “I would do anything to protect you and Michael. Anything.” He shook his head and resumed his preparations, standing and reaching for his belt. “I only wish I had killed the baron myself.” He lifted haunted eyes to stare at Fox. “He was a horrible man, Fox.” He turned to Michael on the bed beside him and tenderly stroked his hair. “A horrible man.”
Fox scowled. “But I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. We will not speak of it again.” His father picked up his sword and gazed at it for a very long moment.
Fox couldn’t stop the anger that burned in his chest. What kind of man was the murderer to remain silent while his father took the punishment for him? Had he no honor? Fox’s jaw clenched. Whoever had murdered the baron would pay. It was a vow he was determined to keep, no matter how long it took him.
His father slid his sword into his sheath and then headed for the door.
Fox looked at Michael. His brother stared at him with large eyes. They were the saddest eyes Fox had ever seen. He took his little brother’s hand in his and squeezed it reassuringly. Together they left the room, shadowing their father as he moved down the corridors and through the stone tunnels that made up Castle Mercer’s hallways. They descended a dark spiral stairway that led to the Great Hall.
The noise coming from the Hall was a jumble of tones and timbres, some somber weeping and sad words of mourning, some dark laughter and sinister words of support. His family’s doom waited in the room. Some of the gathered throng dreaded what was to come, while others approved and eagerly waited for the king’s response.
Fox’s heart started pounding faster in his chest. His hand tightened around Michael’s, his palm slick with nervous sweat.
His father did not hesitate at the room’s threshold. He moved into the Great Hall with his customary strong stride, his head held high. Fox and Michael followed. Fox was careful to keep his eyes on his father’s back; he didn’t want to see the satisfied look in some of the gathered nobility’s eyes. He didn’t want to look at their disgust and their disapproval of the great man who walked proudly before him. They were all wrong in their merciless feelings for his father. All wrong.
Fox shifted his gaze to the front of the room. Normally, the raised platform situated there would hold the table for him and his family. But on this dark day, the table was gone. In its place was a row of seated people dressed in finery and velvets. One man drew his attention: King Edward of England. He was seated in an ornately decorated chair in the center of the row of nobles. He sat stiffly in the high-backed chair, surveying Fox’s father with obvious disapproval, and absently rubbed his chin with long, slender fingers.
Fox’s father stopped before the rise, bending one knee to the floor and bowing his head. Fox did the same, having to pull Michael down before the King.
A disgruntled snort came from the King, and Fox lifted his head slightly to see his reaction. The King studied his nails, announcing, “Rise, Mercer.”
A murmur ran through the room. The King had not used lord Mercer’s rightful title.
Fox rose after his father, the insult and degradation not lost on him. Fox clenched his fist, careful not to hurt Michael.
The King waved a hand. Two men in chainmail came forward and took Fox’s father’s arm, leading him onto the rise. They turned him to face the crowd of nobles assembled in the room. A herald stepped down from the platform, clutching a rolled parchment. He was a thin man with a graying, manicured beard. The herald waited a moment for the room to become silent. Then he unrolled the parchment, cleared his throat, and read the king’s decree.
“Frederick Mercer has been found guilty of official corruption,” the herald proclaimed, his voice echoing from one side of the Great Hall to the other.
Behind Mercer, the two knights lifted large metal hammers and brought them smashing down at the back of his heels. His father’s spurs cracked under the blows.
Fox stood immobile. Beside him, Michael sobbed and Fox felt the same anguish twisting his stomach and churning his throat. It took all his willpower to stand still and not rush to his father’s aid.
Kchang! The grating, harsh sound of metal striking metal immediately filled the large room. The abrasive noise echoed from wall to wall, as if chasing the herald’s ricocheting words. Kchang! The new blast of noise overtook the ghost of the previous metallic clang before it completely faded away.
With every strike, Fox willed his father’s humiliation to stop, but it continued.
The herald looked back down at the unrolled parchment he held in his hands. “Frederick Mercer is stripped of his lands,” he announced.
Murmurings spread like wildfire through the Great Hall.
Fox shifted his glance to King Edward, who lounged in his chair, calmly sipping a golden goblet full of ale, impervious to the destruction he was causing. He was an imposing man, large in presence, but slim in girth. He radiated power and authority with a mere glance and a gesture. Today, his eyes were dark, his expression calmly hiding his fierce anger, except for the grim set of his lips. The King scanned the mass of people in the Great Hall, as if searching for someone.
Why couldn‘t you tell him what he wants to know? Fox silently asked his father. Fox’s jaw clenched with agony and anger. Just tell him! his mind screamed.
Kchang! The spurs finally broke away from the heel.
“His lands will be forfeit to Lord Vaughn,” the herald droned.
Lord Vaughn! Evan’s father. Fox’s jaw clenched tighter. Evan. My friend, he thought bitterly.
On the platform, the two knights finally ceased their attack and stepped away from Lord Mercer. Each grabbed a fallen spur, one knight tossing a spur left and the other tossing a spur to the right.
Another knight clad in chainmail stepped forward with a sharp dagger.
Fox straightened instantly as the room became quiet, the murmuring dwindling into a prolonged stretch of complete silence.
The herald cleared his throat and repositioned the parchment in his hands. Finally, he read the last, chilling sentence written on the scroll. “Lord Frederick Mercer is no more.”
Terror washed over Fox. Would the King allow his father to be killed? he wondered as the knight with the dagger ominously approached Frederick Mercer. The knight seized Mercer’s leather belt, the belt that held his sword and scabbard about his waist, and raised the dagger. With a sharp, violent swipe, the knight cut the belt clean through. Frederick’s sword fell to the floor with a loud, hollow clang. The knight picked up the sword, pulled it from its sheath, and lifted it high above his head.
Fox lunged forward.
But he was too late. The knight brought the weapon down, smashing the blunt part of the blade over his father’s head with such force the weapon broke in two. Frederick swayed under the brutal strike, dropping hard and fast to his knees. He swayed for a moment, his eyes nearly rolling into the back of his head, but he did not topple to the floor.
Fox reached out a hand to his father’s elbow to steady him, but his father pulled angrily away from the offer of aid. He forced himself to stand erect as best he could, obviously struggling with the tremendous pain he was experiencing, his legs buckling under him as he stood. Blows of such force had killed lesser men. Blood trickled down his father’s head, dripping over his left eye and splashing across his cheek. He steadied himself, bowed stiffly to the King, and turned to walk back down the aisle toward the large double doors that would free him from this public display of disgrace.
Fox watched him with a mixture of awe and humiliation. He recovered quickly and took Michael’s hand, hurrying after his father.
The crowd gaped at Frederick Mercer as he moved down the aisle, most staring at him in disbelief, some even staring at him in awe for having the courage and strength to stand and walk from the room of his own accord. He had been a well-respected lord, a friend of many who were in the Great Hall. A brave, strong, honorable man. Now, he was a broken man — titleless, landless. A commoner. Lord Frederick Mercer was indeed no more.
Quiet descended over the room as he moved through it. Frederick kept his head high, his chin raised in defiance of their stares. Blood continued to drip down from his head and stain his face.
Fox moved solemnly behind his father. The room seemed to be in a haze from the embarrassment and utter devastation swirling through Fox. Suddenly, something seized his hand. He glanced down to see small, feminine fingers clutching at his. He lifted his gaze to see a small angel. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her cheeks streaked with tears.
His look softened for a moment as he gazed at her.
Jordan Ruvane, one of the two best friends he had in the whole world. And the other was Evan Vaughn, he thought bitterly. He squeezed her hand once before moving after his father. Their hands slowly separated, their fingers sliding across each other until finally there was nothing but distance between them.
“… The Baron of Dalton was murdered. Stabbed.”
“I hear Mercer knows who did it. But he won’t say.”
“… Baron Magnus was one of the King’s favorites.”
Fox hurried past the gossiping nobles, hurried through the corridor toward the great double doors of the castle. He had to get out. He had to escape the superior looks, the haughty stares and whispers behind his back. I don’t give a damn what they think, Fox told himself. But he couldn’t stand the way they looked at him.
Just a day before, just hours before, the same people were his friends, his equals. Now they saw him as inferior. Fox clenched his teeth. He reached the doors only to find a downpour of rain slamming into the ground.
Fox halted. He couldn’t go out. He took a step back and turned. Four nobles, two he recognized as Lord Hagen and Lord Lynch, were staring at him, whispering. Fox whirled and stormed out into the sheets of rain. He raced through the downpour, sloshing through large puddles and thick mud clutching at his ankles, dashing through the inner and then the outer courtyard as the rainfall splattered his young body. The wards were mercifully empty. He continued across the lowered drawbridge and turned sharply to his right to run across the field bordering Castle Mercer. The tall wet grass blew in the strong wind, slapping at his thighs. He could not see more than a few feet in front of him because of the torrents of rain, but he raced on. It was lucky he knew the way by heart. It was the only place he could go.
The last few days’ events replayed in his thoughts as he ran. Lord Vaughn had magnanimously given his family two weeks to find somewhere else to stay and vacate the castle. But they had nowhere to go, nowhere to stay. His life was over. He could not be a squire or a knight. He would never be a lord. His future had been destroyed.
The roar of the river greeted him first. It was not the gentle caress it had been when he had visited it last, but a powerful rush of churning, white capped water. Its width had swelled to the very edges of the willow trees dotting its banks, the fast-moving water pushing at the drooping branches that had sunk beneath its surface, making the trees appear alive.
Fox ran to two trees that grew very close to each other and pushed the heavy branches aside, stepping into the makeshift cave their branches had created. It was very dark in the cave today. So very dark and cold.
He sank down on the soft, wet moss, the chill from the ground quickly seeping through his already wet clothing, seeping into his very bones. He felt defeated. Alone.
Darkness settled over the land and over Fox’s heart. And like the intense emotions and confusion raging inside Fox, the storm continued to vent its fury outside the makeshift branch walls of Fox’s secret hideaway.
“Fox?” someone called from outside the cave.
Fox knew the owner of the voice, but for a moment he thought he had imagined it.
“Fox?” She sounded a little more desperate.
Jordan. She shouldn’t be here. She should be with the other nobles. “Leave me alone,” he commanded softly. She didn’t have to endure the pain he was going through. He buried his face between his hands.
“Fox,” she almost sighed, ducking to move beneath the branches, stepping toward him. “I was hoping I’d find you here.”
“I said leave me alone.” His tone was stronger.
She fell to her knees, reaching out to him.
Fox pulled away from her touch, turning away from her. “You shouldn’t be seen with me anymore,” Fox whispered in a ragged and hoarse tone. “I’m a commoner now. A peasant. A nothing…”
“Do you think I care if you are titleless? Or if you have no lands? Would I have come out in this storm if I did? I don’t care about any of that.”
“Your father does,” Fox retorted. “Your friends do.”
Jordan reached out to clasp his hands. “You are my friend.”
Despite the chill surrounding them, her hands were warm and soft.
“Not any longer.” Fox ripped his hands away from her. She had to leave him for her own good. She could not be seen with him. It could bring the King’s wrath on her and her family.
“Why are you doing this? I would never give up our friendship. You mean more to me…”
Jordan shook her head. “Don’t make me leave.”
Her anguish tore at his young heart. He didn’t want to hurt her. It took all his willpower not to apologize, not to let her be the friend he so desperately needed.
As the silence stretched, Fox thought it was over. She would leave him now. He lifted his gaze to her. Her dress was soaked. Her long brown hair hung over her shoulders, shining with rain. Her pale skin was speckled with raindrops. She looked like some fallen angel.
Her large eyes caught and held his attention. In them, he swore he saw his salvation. He almost lifted his hand, almost reached out to her. But he couldn’t draw her into his desperation. He clenched his hand, refusing to move it. She had to leave him.
But she didn’t. “You think that by hurting me you will make this easier,” Jordan said. “I won’t be forced away.”
“Jordan,” Fox whispered, fighting down his need, fighting the loneliness that engulfed him. He did need her. He would always need her. Fox suddenly leaned into her, embracing her tightly, pulling her close. “I don’t want to lose you. You are all I have in the world now.”
Jordan clung to him, squeezing his wet velvet tunic beneath her fingers. “You won’t lose me, Fox. I’ll always be with you. There will never be anyone else.”
Fox pulled back slightly, his deep blue eyes sweeping her face, taking in every detail. Faithfulness shone from her blue eyes. He lifted a hand to brush his wet fingertips across her cheek.
Fox gave in to the complete and utter desolation he felt. He leaned forward, resting his forehead against her shoulder.
They held each other, the branches of the willow tree surrounding them, sheltering them, closing out the world and stopping time.
When the sun rose the next morning, Fox bounded from his room and raced to the inner ward. The night had brought him little solace and much restlessness. But of all the chaos in his life, he still had one privilege. He ignored the turned backs of his former friends, his former peers. Now they treated him no better than the dirt on the ground. But he didn’t care. He didn’t need them. He had the only friend that mattered. A true friend.
His gaze searched the throng of departing lords and ladies in the inner courtyard. Their tall headdresses and rich clothing were something he would not be able to afford anymore. But it didn’t matter. He never liked the fashions anyway.
Then his gaze settled on the red lion emblazoned on a white flag, the Ruvane crest, clearly visible above the crowd. A bright smile blossomed on Fox’s face, but then abruptly vanished as he saw the flag moving out of the castle, already beneath the outer portcullis. Fox raced after it, desperation swelling within his chest. Jordan was leaving! And without saying a word to him. Something horrible had happened. He could feel it in his very bones.
Fox desperately pushed his way through the knights, shouldering his way past one lord who shoved him rudely in the back. But Fox did not take his gaze from the departing flag. It drew farther and farther away, moving down the road toward the town. Fox tried to increase his pace, but the courtyard was too crowded with departing nobles, horses, and servants for him to move quickly. Finally, he burst through the crowd, breaking free of its confines, moving onto the drawbridge…
… only to see the Ruvane flag picking up speed as it moved away from him down the road, flapping in the breeze.
“Jordan!” Fox screamed, but his voice was swallowed up by the wind. “Jordan!”
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