Summary: When Sir Richard reaches his eighteenth birthday, he becomes the target for evil men and brazen women seeking easy wealth. It’s up to Castle Wayne’s wise Seneschal, Alfred, the Duke of Pennyworth, Lady Barbara Gordon, his true love, and of course, his guardian, Bruce Lord Wayne to ensure Richard’s safe passage into his majority. To make matters worse, the legendary island kingdom of Avalon is under assault by the dark forces of an age-old enemy.

Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. Copyright 1999

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” (Hamlet V, 2)

Prologue

It is said that somewhere in the mists of time lies the small island kingdom of Avalon, the jewel of the North Sea. Some say it is the stuff of legends, a tale to entertain children on a cold winter’s day. Still others say that it exists today in a time and place not unlike our own where familiar heroes live and fight for justice. Regardless whether one believes in the verity of its existence, our story begins as the peaceful realm is about to be visited by an age-old evil that awakes from a centuries-long sleep . . .

Chapter One

“Good night, Sir Richard!” Mavis the tavern maid waved from the window of her boudoir. Her sister, Elspeth, quickly joined her. “Good night! Hurry back!”

Sir Richard waved jauntily at them from his fiery steed, Nightwing. He pulled Nightwing back on his haunches, then with a final “Tally-ho!” charged into the gathering night. Castle Wayne’s Seneschal, Alfred, the Duke of Pennyworth, would have his hide in the morn if he failed to return before the gates were lowered for the night.

His guardian, Bruce, Lord of Castle Wayne had left strict orders. His young ward would heed the nightly curfew, as did all the good citizens of Castle Wayne. Richard looked at the eastern horizon and suddenly spurred Nightwing to even greater speed. The evening star was just visible; it was later than he’d thought! If he missed curfew, he wouldn’t have to worry about Alfred, Bruce would take care of him.

As he rounded the final bend on the road to Castle Wayne, Richard saw that they were just beginning to raise the drawbridge.

“Let’s go, Nightwing!” he yelled. He took off his rakish hat in a flourish and used it to urge his loyal steed to even greater speed. Nightwing suddenly seemed possessed of an almost supernatural speed. As he increased his pace, it appeared as if rider and horse were literally flying. Nightwing’s gait was so incredibly smooth, Richard couldn’t feel the ground below them. In a flash, Nightwing went airborne and they successfully leaped across the distance that separated them from the partially raised drawbridge.

As they landed safely and rode under the quickly descending gates, Richard was met with whistles and wolf calls from his fellow knights who were on sentry duty.

“Did she have a sister?” Someone called out.

“Aye. That she did,” another replied. “And she probably had a husband, too!” This was accompanied by raucous laughter.

Richard merely waved, not slowing until he reached the stables. He dismounted quickly and began walking Nightwing around the exercise ring. After that last surge of energy that Nightwing had given, Richard had to ensure that his trusty friend was sufficiently cooled, before he bedded him down for the night. After a few minutes, Richard removed Nightwing’s saddle and blanket, brushed him down, and taking his bridle, Richard led him to the watering trough, and finally to his stall.

Richard gave Nightwing an extra helping of oats to show his gratitude. He also pulled out an apple that he’d palmed from the Hogshead Tavern that night.

“Here you go, boy,” he said softly. Nightwing eagerly took the proffered apple and nuzzled his young master. Richard laughed delightedly. “You old fake . . . you knew what those two were up to all the time, didn’t you? That’s why you were waiting for me!” Nightwing snuffled into Richard’s shoulder, then bobbed his head up and down, giving the idea that he understood.

Richard smiled and patted his companion affectionately. “The sentry who implied that I’d been with a married woman will never know just how close to the truth he actually was.” Grinning suddenly, Richard held his closed hands out on either side of him. Nightwing immediately recognized the game that they’d been playing since he was a young colt. He began to sniff at Richard’s closed fists; then finally moved to dig into his master’s leather jerkin. Richard laughed and took out an extra large carrot.

An intolerant whinny came from two stalls down. Nightstar, personal war-horse to Lord Wayne and Nightwing’s sire, had announced his displeasure at the youngsters’ late arrival.

“Greetings, old timer . . . Yes, I know we were foolish, but as you can see neither of us is any worse for wear. Here, I brought you a treat, too.” Richard pulled out a second apple that he’d managed to hide from Nightwing’s eager nose and held it out to the older stallion. Watching Wayne’s beloved steed munch happily at the unexpected treat, Richard absentmindedly stroked his white star blaze and sighed. Ever since he’d reached the age of eighteen, and in the eyes of the locals had arrived at his majority, the women of neighboring hamlets had been after him. Thankfully, his father’s Last Will and Testament had been specific. John Lord Grayson had wanted his son to be placed under the guardianship of his good friend, Bruce Lord Wayne. Furthermore, Richard wouldn’t come into his full inheritance until he reached the age of one and twenty years.

Lord Grayson knew that young gentlemen made handsome targets for both evil men and brazen women in search of easy wealth. Therefore, even though legally he’d reached the age of consent, Richard willingly honored his father’s memory and took a vow of fealty to Lord Wayne. He remembered the solemn ceremony some nine years past. A ceremony marred only by the all too recent deaths of both of his parents while in the service of the King.

 

“I swear by my sword and my honor that I am your loyal vassal, to serve you faithfully until such occasion as you choose to release me.” Richard stood in the Great Circular Hall of Castle Wayne before a gathering of the Clan Chiefs; he was dressed proudly in his full Grayson regalia, the proud Grayson tartan of crimson, gold, and emerald casting a bright swath of color in the gloomy interior of the great hall. The motto, “Constant and True,” was etched in Gaelic on his shield.

A mere lad of nine, Richard was now the hereditary Chieftain of Clan Grayson. His holdings included his ancestral home, Graetheson Court, which was located on the rocky cliffs of Solway Firth. The surrounding Lowland areas of Dumfrieshire and Strathclyde were also part of the Grayson lands. Graetheson Court’s proximity to the Northern Wastelands made it a vital strategic holding in King Orrin’s realm, the island kingdom of Avalon, the jewel of the North Sea.

Therefore, in obedience to his father’s last will, Richard swore fealty to an Outlander, a non-Clansman. The other Clan Chiefs might have privately disapproved, but publicly they supported the wishes of Lord Grayson. Richard knelt in the traditional supplicant’s position, head lowered, his sword held before him hilt forward as an offering to his new lord.

Lord Wayne solemnly took the sword, then held out his right hand. Richard kissed the Wayne signet ring to seal his oath. Completing the ceremony, Wayne lightly tapped Richard on each shoulder and stated formally: “I accept your fealty, Sir Richard, Lord Grayson. Rise and serve me until such occasion as I choose to release you from your oath.”

A quiet whinny from Elinore’s stall woke Richard from his musings. The usual stable sounds of stamping hoofs and rattling halters added a soothing symphony to the quiet surroundings. Elinore’s time was drawing near. This was her first foal, and both Richard and Nightwing, the proud father, were anxiously awaiting the blessed event.

“Shh-h, Lady Elinore,” Richard said gently. He entered her stall where she lay on her side. Elinore delicately raised her head at the sound of Richard’s voice. He knelt next to her and gently stroked her neck. “Shh-h, beautiful lady . . . pretty mother . . . ” Richard continued speaking nonsensical endearing phrases.

Lord Grayson had had a magic touch with horses, something about his whispered sorcerer’s blood. Some said that he was descended from the band of wandering Romany sorcerers who used to inhabit the foothills and countryside surrounding the Trossachs, the mountains that ran along the southern boundary of the Caledonian Highlands. Whatever it was, Richard knew instinctively that he had his father’s gift with horses. A voice behind him expressed agreement.

“You do have your father’s touch, Dicky.”

Annoyed, Richard looked up towards the sound of the voice. There was only person who dared call him by the hated nickname, Lady Barbara, the daughter of Captain Sir James Gordon, Captain of the Castle Guards. Richard felt the usual confusion that her presence always seemed to place him in. He ducked his head quickly to hide the sudden flush that had spread across his cheeks. He pretended to be closely studying Elinore’s mane.

As usual, Lady Barbara was dressed in a skirt and bodice made of simple homespun linen; she wore a white apron over it that was stained from her daily household chores. Richard knew that the apron had been as white as fresh-fallen snow when she’d put it on first thing that morning; however, Barbara worked as hard as any of the household servants even though she was not required to do so because of her station.

“Good e’en, Lady Barbara,” he said. He’d almost called her Lady Babs, a name she despised as much as he hated Dicky; however, Richard was raised to be a gentleman, and a knight never insulted a lady, however well deserved. Of course, Barbara Gordon is no lady, he added darkly to himself.

“Have you decided on a name for the wee one, yet?”

“Aye,” Richard said, disarmed; Elinore’s foal was currently his favorite topic of discussion. “Bruce and I have decided on Elaine if the foal’s a filly, and if it’s a colt, then Nightwind.” Barbara smiled her approval.

“What do you think Lady Elinore?” Elinore whinnied in gentle approval. Barbara and Richard exchanged amused glances. Barbara’s eyes suddenly took on an impish twinkle.

“I hear you’ve been paying a visit to Hogshead Tavern this e’en,” she said. She was looking at him saucily askance. Richard sighed. Here it comes, he thought.

“Aye, you heard correctly,” he admitted reluctantly.

“So how is Bullock the Tavern owner?” she asked innocently.

“He is in good health,” Richard replied.

“Oh, really? Did you see him then? I’d heard that he was in Gotham Town these past two days, selling and buying wares. I heard not of his return from his travels.”

“Nay, I saw him not,” Richard admitted. “But his good wife Mavis did inform me of his excellent health.”

“I see . . . so it was with Mistress Bullock with whom you spent this e’en?” Richard began to shake his head in denial, then perversely changed his mind. Lady Barbara was heartily enjoying his discomfiture, and he had had just about enough. He suddenly gave her a devilish smile with a suggestive twinkle. Placing his hands behind his head, Richard lay back casually on the soft hay in Elinore’s stall.

“Aye, in fact, her sister, the maiden Elspeth, was there as well. We spent quite an interesting afternoon together, the three of us. Before I knew it, it was time to return to Castle Wayne. But I assure you, my lady, that a young gentleman could not hope for two lovelier wenches with whom to while the idle hours.”

Barbara’s green eyes flashed and her cheeks flushed in obvious anger. “Sir Richard, son of John Lord Grayson, you are a disgrace to your knightly vows!” Barbara turned on her heel and stamped out of the stables.

Richard grinned.

In fact, Richard had indeed spent an interesting afternoon with Bullock’s good wife, Mavis, and her maiden sister Elspeth. Which is why he’d left the Hogshead Tavern in such a rush; Mavis’ intentions soon became all too obvious to the young knight. Richard liked and respected Bullock, the owner of the Hogshead, and had actually been there that evening to speak with him.

As Barbara stated, Bullock had been out, but Richard had not discovered that fact until almost too late. Mavis had tried to place him in a compromising position by misleading him into believing that Bullock was in the upstairs bedchamber and that he wanted to see him.

Upon entering the bedchamber Richard discovered, not Bullock, but Elspeth lying in bed completely unclothed. Nude. Totally. Richard was almost frozen in shock. When Mavis suddenly locked the door behind her, and Elspeth flipped up her covers invitingly, Richard sprang into action.

He literally flew out the second story window, somersaulting in mid-air and grabbing the flagpole that hung from the building’s facade. He allowed his momentum to swing him around the flagpole once. As he completed his revolution he whistled for Nightwing, released his grip and flew towards his horse.

He’d timed his release so that he landed on Nightwing as his horse galloped below him. He quickly settled into his seat, spun Nightwing around, looked up at the window and gallantly waved adieu to the two women who’d tried to compromise his honor.

If he’d known that turning eighteen would be this nerve-racking, Richard thought glumly, he’d never have insisted on a birthday celebration! Now it seemed as if every unmarried maiden (and married woman) knew that he’d reached his legal age and could enter into a betrothal contract. Well, he wasn’t ready to become betrothed to anybody! Why didn’t they pick on someone their own size–like Lord Wayne? He was unmarried . . . and wealthy! He owned the part of the realm that the King didn’t, or so the saying went.

Anyway, the only damsels whom Richard had met so far were silly and giggled constantly. It seemed to Richard that the mothers were even worse: they insistently pushed their awkward daughters towards him, forcing an introduction, which invariably ended with the gawky young girl looking like she wanted to be swallowed whole.

Truth be told, the only girl who didn’t seem to swoon at his feet was Barbara; however, she was a few years older than he and loved to lord it over him in a superior manner. Anyway, she apparently couldn’t stand him personally, and would just as soon run him through with her father’s saber as look at him. Not that he’d ever ask her for her hand.

Although, he admitted privately that she did have lovely green eyes. And she was an expert rider, as well as an accomplished swordswoman. And, she hardly ever giggled, except at his expense, he added, his eyes narrowing.

The church bells rang the hour: seven o’clock! He would be late for the even repast if he didn’t hurry, and Alfred was a stickler for promptness! He slipped into his seat while Fra Haly gave the blessing. Haly had been the Grayson family’s personal confessor. He had officiated at Lord and Lady Grayson’s marriage nuptials and at the bap It’sm and christening of their only son. Richard was extremely fond of him.

” . . . Father, as we thank you for this fine evening repast, we ask you to guide young Sir Richard through his life’s journey so that the decisions he makes are wise ones.” Richard cringed at the mention of his name. “We ask this in your name . . . Amen.”

The table responded with a round of “Amens.” Sir Wallace looked over at Richard and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Sir Roy joined in the pantomime and soon both young knights looked ready to collapse in laughter. Richard rolled his eyes upward. He glanced to the other end of the table where Lady Barbara usually sat with her father. She was talking animatedly to someone whom Richard did not know. A visitor to Castle Wayne was a rare enough occasion to warrant investigation.

“Sir Richard!” Wayne’s booming voice could be heard reverberating around the great hall.

“My lord!” Richard responded, instantaneously on his feet and facing his lord.

“Nay, Richard . . . please, remain seated,” Wayne said placatingly. “I wish to introduce you to Master Jack Rapier. Master Rapier brings us glad tidings from their majesties, King Orrin and Queen Diana. They shall be paying us a visit within the next moon tide.”

“That is indeed good news, my lord. ‘ It’s an age since last I saw my aunt and uncle,” Richard replied.

“Aye, it is,” Wayne answered. The occasion of the last royal visit had not been cause for celebration; instead, their majesties had escorted home the remains of Richard’s parents in solemn procession. The Graysons had lain in state for five days. Mourners had traveled from throughout the kingdom to pay their last respects to the queen’s much beloved sister and brother-in-law.

Since Wayne had been designated Richard’s guardian, the ties binding Castle Wayne to the royal court had become further strengthened. Moreover, as Wayne was unmarried and childless, and because he felt a fatherly affection for his ward, he had recently named Sir Richard his sole heir as well. While Wayne’s decision went over quite well with the local populace, it only enhanced Richard’s feelings that he was just so much beef on the hoof waiting for some lucky wench to dig her meat hooks into him.

Wayne’s fingers moved in the secret signal. Richard responded in kind, “Message received.” He looked over in Alfred’s direction; the loyal Seneschal gave the barest nod. Excellent! There was need for the Nightriders! Richard felt the adrenaline course through his veins. He turned towards the food on his plate. He ate whatever was placed in front of him, but couldn’t remember any of the delicacies that Cook had so painstakingly prepared.

He heard laughter coming from Barbara’s location. Barbara looked unusually flushed tonight; her complexion glowed in the dim lighting streaming from the hundreds of candles suspended over head. Her Titian hair, tied back in a hair net delicately comprised of white pearls, was seemingly alight with the fire of countless suns. She had changed for dinner, of course, and was now wearing a beautifully brocaded formal gown that had an embroidered bodice of the softest meadow green, which enchantingly set off her eyes. Master Rapier leaned over and said something to her that brought a breath-taking smile. Richard felt a sudden stab of jealousy course through him. Who was this kingsman, Rapier? He’d never heard of him! The anticipated excitement of the evening’s activities left him.

“Would ye care for any more of the turkey breast, Sir Richard?” Richard came out of his reverie and looked up at the beautiful brown eyes of the buxom serving maid, Bess. Bess was one of the many unattached girls who were constantly offering up their wares to the young knight. So far, he’d been able to resist her advances–basically because he was terrified of her and had somehow managed to always see her first, thus allowing him time to escape in the direction opposite to that which she was going. Besides, there was something about her that made him distinctly uncomfortable.

Bess leaned down until her well-endowed décolletage was at his eye level. Richard felt his whole body flush hotly.

“Uh-h . . . breast? Uh-h . . . I mean . . . turkey . . . no, I-I’m full, Bess . . . I couldn’t eat another . . . breast . . . ” He swallowed, then looked up at her horrified that he may have said or done something offensive. Instead, Bess was giving him a smile full of secret promises. Her eyes . . . her eyes bothered him. Despite their promise of forbidden pleasures, they seemed cold . . . almost calculating.

“I’ll be in the east gate stables later this evening,” she whispered. With that, the young serving maid began to clear Richard’s table setting. A couple of times she lightly brushed against him, causing him to jump nervously. He sneaked a peek over at Barbara and to his utter dismay, he saw her eyes targeting daggers at him. Richard caught the knowing looks that Wallace and Roy were sending him. Then, like a dark shadow descending on his very soul, he felt Lord Wayne’s eyes on him. Richard looked at Wayne and caught a glittering look of disapproval in his eyes. Richard was well versed in this look; he’d seen it enough times when Wayne directed it at some hapless highwayman who’d dared to practice his art on Castle Wayne lands. He knew it well enough to know that he didn’t want it turned on him.

Richard wondered that if he wished long and hard enough whether the ground would suddenly open up and swallow him. Now he knew how all of those awkward girls felt when they were thrust on him by their mothers. This was turning into just a wonderful evening, he thought.

As Richard sat there forlornly wishing he knew how to perform the disappearing act that Wayne’s magician, the Great Zatar, had perfected, he again felt a pair of eyes on him. This time however the sensation he was receiving wasn’t Wayne’s disapproval or Barbara’s jealous anger; instead, a feeling of cold, abject malevolence seemed to descend on him, a sensation of such intense malignity that Richard felt it as a shroud settling over him in suffocating folds.

Richard began to dissociate as he often did when he couldn’t separate the physical reality around him from the metaphysical regions that seemed to draw him forth. He looked around the great hall as if in a dream. Wallace and Roy were both leering at Bess, laughing good-naturedly as she sidestepped their drunken advances. Barbara was tossing her head back, finishing off her goblet of mead in an almost defiant manner. Lord Wayne was leaning over and speaking in quiet undertones to Alfred who nodded sagely.

Finally, Richard’s eyes came to rest on Rapier. Rapier had his right arm resting on the back of Barbara’s chair. He was leaning closely to her, smiling charmingly, easily, whispering in her ear. Barbara’s face blushed prettily and she quickly dropped her eyes. She seemed suddenly nervous and moved slightly away from Rapier, apparently to put distance between them.

Rapier gallantly moved away from her. Then, to Richard’s surprise, Rapier turned around and looked him fully in the eyes, holding him in his mesmerizing gaze. Time seemed to stand still. Richard suddenly blinked and the firmament resumed its normal place within the celestial spheres. Rapier gave him a knowing smile, then stood.

“Lord Wayne . . . Lady Barbara . . . fellow knights of the realm, and ladies . . . I propose a toast . . . to their Majesties . . . King Orrin and Queen Diana . . . long life and prosperity!” All rose and responded heartily.

“To the King and Queen . . . long life and prosperity!” They tossed back their goblets, then as one threw them at the great fireplace. “Here, here! Long live King Orrin and Queen Diana!”

“My Lord Wayne, I have had a long and tiring journey. I beg your indulgence and request to retire for the night to my guest chambers,” Rapier said.

Wayne nodded his acquiescence. “Alfred shall see to your needs, Master Rapier. Sleep well.”

“Thank you, my lord. Your hospitality has been unsurpassed. I bid you good night.” Rapier turned and followed Alfred to his guest quarters. Following Rapier’s lead, Richard stood up as well.

“My lord, I too have had a long day. I beg your indulgence to excuse me from the rest of the evening’s festivities and allow me to retire to my private chambers.” Wayne nodded. He gave Richard the sign meaning midnight sharp at the usual rendezvous. Richard acknowledged the message then headed towards his apartments. He had a little over three hours before he had to meet Wayne; therefore, he’d use the time to bathe and refresh himself. It had been a long, arduous ride from the Hogshead Tavern.

He wondered what dark activities required the services of the Nightriders. The Dark Knight and his squire Robin were becoming legendary in these parts. Of course, no one really believed in their actual existence, just folktales invented to excite and frighten children at night. There were those who insisted that the Nightriders rode out of the shadows on their thundering steeds, and others who swore that they swooped in from the sky–like bats in the night. Whatever the impossible tales, they were all in agreement in one thing: the Nightriders rescued the helpless from the forces of the dark that rumors said were encroaching into Avalon.

Richard wondered if there were indeed forces from the nether regions wending their way into King Orrin’s kingdom. Legend said that during the Time of the Dark, when the kingdom was held in thrall by the evil hand of the wicked sorcerer Mordant, the Romany sorcerers had banded together with the Emerald Guardians for one last devastating battle and had defeated the baneful mage’s dark armies.

However, the powerful magical energies that had been released by both sides had destroyed much of the realm, resulting in the destruction of what had once been the northern mountain range, which had bordered the two lands. Now only a vast wasteland of unbroken desert lay for hundreds of miles as the crow flew. For two centuries no one who had ventured into these regions had returned.

Some said that Mordant had not been killed, but simply lay dormant, waiting to be awakened. Others said that it was merely legend, the stuff of dreams.

Whatever the truth, Richard knew that what he had seen these past few months weren’t dreams. Perhaps they were the stuff of his worst nightmares, but they weren’t dreams. He still had the battle scars to prove it, he thought ruefully. This was why Lord Wayne imposed a dusk to dawn curfew on the inhabitants of Castle Wayne and the surroundings outlands.

There had been an inexplicable number of disappearances in the past few months, accompanied with a growing sense of dread. Most of the missing were little more than children: Young maids who’d never known a man’s bed; boys who’d not yet undergone any changes into manhood. Needless to say, many of the surrounding populace were beginning to pack their few belongings and move into the relative protection of Castle Wayne.

Reports were flying in from Lord Wayne’s borderland scouts that a vast Dark Legion was assembling beyond the Wastelands. Even more frightening were the unconfirmed stories that Mordant had awakened.

Richard looked down at the family heirloom that hung from his neck. A many-faceted emerald jewel surrounded by a ring of bright red rubies set on a simple gold backing, the Emerald Eye was said to endow its wearer with the powerful sorcery of the Romany clan. Unfortunately, his father had died before he’d passed the Eye’s secrets to him. While Richard greatly prized the family amulet, it was his father’s uncanny wisdom and knowledge of the secret arts that he wished he’d been given. Without that knowledge, the Eye was little more than mere decoration.

Richard sighed. He’d best hurry if he were to make the midnight rendezvous.

Chapter Two

As he entered the Nightriders’ secret headquarters, Richard saw that Wayne was already liveried in black from head to toe: the Dark Knight. He was obviously waiting impatiently for his ward. Richard nodded and hurried quickly to Alfred who waited with his Robin regalia. Like his guardian, Richard was dressed entirely in black, except for a single bold girdle of red around his trim waist. A half-cowl to mask his features completed the transformation.

“About time! I was ready to set off on my own,” Wayne said curtly.

“My apologies, Bruce,” Richard replied properly chas It’sed. “Alfred, I can manage . . . why don’t you ready the horses?”

“Done, Sir Richard,” Alfred said drolly. Richard grinned boyishly.

“What would we ever do without you, Alfred?”

“I shudder to speculate, young sir,” Alfred said without batting an eyelid. He gave Richard’s long flowing cape a gentle tug as a finishing touch and stepped back. He gave his young charge a nod of sa It’sfaction. Richard stretched, testing his light mail to ensure ease of movement. Sa It’sfied, he nodded at Wayne, who without a word, turned on his heel and headed towards the secret passageway to the stables.

“With their Majesties paying us a visit within the fortnight, we must ensure that the countryside is safe for travel. These unspeakable horrors that we encountered on the last new moon . . . I don’t know Richard . . . I just don’t know.” Wayne shook his head. Richard looked at his Lord in shock. For Wayne to admit that he was at a loss for an explanation or an idea of how to solve a problem showed the extreme gravity of the situation.

“My Lord, if these are evil creatures from the Time of the Dark, perhaps the way to fight them is not through swordsmanship, but rather through sorcery. Surely, the Great Zatar can help in this area?”

“The Great Zatar is a stage magician only, lad. He knows not of alchemy or any of the occult arts. To the best of my knowledge, no one has practiced these arts since the great Mage Wars. Legend has it that it took the combined energies of all the Romany sorcerers and the Emerald Guardians to defeat Mordant. Such power was unimaginable then and is unimaginable now.” Wayne paused to allow Richard the opportunity to contemplate such awesome forces.

“When I was a wee lad, Alfred used to entertain me with bedtime stories of a great blinding flash that was reportedly seen a four-days ride from the borderlands. This was followed by a great emerald cloud in the shape of a mushroom that rose high into the sky. As the cloud dissipated, it obscured the sun for several days. Those were strange days indeed.” Wayne gazed unwaveringly at his young ward.

“I know of no one who commands such destructive power today, lad. Nay, I pray that no one commands such a power . . . and yet, if we are to survive the coming of Mordant’s Legions . . . I can only pray that we may find one who does. Meanwhile, there is little that we can do now. We must ride each night and patrol the countryside until King Orrin’s visit, and investigate all reports of strange sightings, regardless of their seeming impossibility. And if by some chance we run into another of these creatures, then we must capture it at all costs. We need physical evidence in order to petition the King on the danger we all face.”

Richard nodded solemnly. He began to feel strangely dissociated from his surroundings. The story that Bruce had related seemed familiar, like something from a half-remembered dream. He fingered the Emerald Eye unconsciously. It felt hot to the touch. As he reached Nightwing, the world suddenly began to spin in a mad kaleidoscope. Strange images began to assault his senses and quickly overwhelmed him . . .

. . . He wakes. He is standing in the middle of a mounted battle, surrounded by the sounds of steel on steel, and the screams of the wounded and dying. The helpless neighs of injured horses tear at his heart. Next, he finds himself half a league behind the lines. Suddenly, the King’s archers run past him. Their urgency is apparent, yet they move quickly in disciplined formation. Infantry, carrying 18-foot pikes in the upright position used for marching, follow them. Finally, a long train of wagons bringing up the rear echelon arrives.

To Richard’s surprise, the occupants of the wagons emerge with quiet determination. He can almost feel the power that emanates from the men and women who as one begin to climb to the top of the ridge overlooking the battle. Some are dressed in the colorful garb of the Romany; others are dressed in dark hooded robes. Subdued lighting hides the robes’ hue. Without uttering a word, or pausing to rest, the group of thirty finally reaches its destination.

They first scratch a circle on the ground and then a hexagon inside the circle. Three men and three women each take an emerald jewel and place it at each point of the hexagon. Another, dressed entirely in emerald robes takes what appears to be a green lantern and sets it carefully in the center of the hexagon.

As one, each man and woman carefully stands outside the circle, removes the emerald talisman that hangs from his or her neck and holds it solemnly towards the center. Then they begin to chant: “In brightest day, in blackest night . . . ”

“. . . No evil shall escape my sight . . . ” Richard whispered. He felt the cold compress on his forehead and winced away from it. The images swirling in his head faded quickly from memory, until he had nothing left except a vague feeling of urgency.

“He’s coming to, sir!” Alfred’s voice sounded worried and relieved at the same time.

“Thank God!” Bruce said, sounding concerned. “I don’t know what happened, Alfred. One minute we’re mounting our horses, the next he’s lying on the ground unconscious!”

“Bruce . . . ? Alfred . . . ?” Richard whispered, dazed. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” Alfred asked. Richard shook his head confused.

“Did I fall in battle?” he asked. Wayne’s face came into his line of vision, his mouth quirked in a half-smile.

“I’m afraid not, lad; we didn’t even make it out of the stables. How are you feeling? Can you sit up?” Richard made a mental assessment of his faculties. He felt all right.

“I believe so, my Lord,” he said nodding. He attempted to sit up slowly, but paused midway. A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him, but quickly passed. Alfred worried over him like an old nanny. “I’m all right, Alfred,” he protested, “really.” Alfred leaned back and sighed. How so like young Lord Wayne at his age. Still a boy, but trying so hard to be a man.

“Very well, young sir. If you’re certain that you’re feeling well, then I shall retire to my rooms. With your permission, Lord Wayne.” Wayne nodded.

“I believe that you have hurt his feelings, lad,” Wayne gently chas It’sed after Alfred left.

“I did not mean to do so, my Lord. I would never knowingly cause hurt to Alfred. He has treated me as his own son since the day I arrived at Castle Wayne. How should I ever make it up to him, Bruce?” Richard’s face looked stricken. Wayne gave him his usual half-smile.

“I believe, Richard, that just allowing Alfred to fuss over you will cast balm on whatever troubled waters you may have stirred. Do not worry, lad. Alfred loves us both and treats us both as if we were still in need of a wet nurse. I’m just glad you’re here . . . this way I’m not the sole recipient of his ministrations.” Richard laughed and felt better. He’d make it up to Alfred in the morning. A sudden thought struck him.

“Bruce, how long was I out? Do we still have time to patrol the castle holdings?” Wayne gave him a wide grin and nodded.

“Aye, lad. Dawn is still a good five candlemarks away. We have plenty of time to patrol the nearby forests. Are you up to it?” Richard grinned in turn and tossed off the bedcovers.

“What do you think, my Lord?” Richard quickly pulled on his riding boots and fastened his spurs. He grabbed his saber and crossbow from where they’d been carelessly tossed in the corner. Almost as an afterthought, he carefully slid a razor-sharp stiletto into his right boot. “Let us away!” The Nightriders quickly hurried down the secret passageways to their waiting horses.

 

They rode swiftly and silently through the deepening gloom of the forest trails. The last time they’d encountered one of the nightmarish horrors from the Time Before, they’d met it along a similarly darkened road. These forest paths were also the favorite haunts of some much more human evildoers. Since the Nightriders had begun their campaign to strike terror into the black hearts of local highwaymen, the roads that crossed through Castle Wayne lands had become much safer to travel.

Tonight, the roads were practically empty. So far, after almost three candle marks, they’d met up with one lone rider who seemed to be in a hurry to get home. They’d stopped the frightened traveler, and when they questioned him, it was all Richard could do to keep from laughing aloud. It was Bullock, the tavern keeper, returning home from his trip to Gotham Town.

“It’s been an uneventful trip, praise God,” Bullock informed the two masked riders. Although clearly frightened initially, when he saw that they intended him no ill, he answered their questions easily and openly. “I was successful in my business transactions while there . . . soon, I shall be adding a new wing and several guest rooms to the inn. Mayhap by midsummer next, I shall be able to accommodate even the king’s entourage!”

Bullock sounded proud of his accomplishments and Richard couldn’t blame him. A self-made man was most unusual and largely impossible during these troubled times. Of course, when one owned a tavern on land that had been deeded by a Wayne ancestor for services rendered in the past, that landowner was ensured protection by the current Wayne heir as well as a tax-free existence for perpetuity.

“Thank you for the information, friend,” Wayne said. “Godspeed home . . . and do not worry . . . the Nightriders watch o’er the lands of Castle Wayne tonight!” The Dark Knight and Robin waved farewell, then the spun their horses and continued their mission. Within the half candle mark, they ran into the first sign of trouble. A carriage had been waylaid by a small band of outlaws. Richard shook his head in amazement. Even with their growing reputations as the Nightriders, there were some that still believed they could prey on helpless travelers through the Wayne holdings.

“When will these brigands learn?” Richard said exasperatedly.

The sudden scream of a woman propelled the Dark Knight and his squire into action. Richard spurred Nightwing into a full gallop. The stalwart stallion responded immediately, eager for action. Wayne and Richard drew swords almost simultaneously, and emerged from the dark woods like demons from hell. Their black capes billowed wildly behind them; their cowled faces were grimaced in almost ravenous anger.

The startled outlaws turned and quickly prepared for battle. Two held their helpless victim between them. Suddenly, she slipped from their grasp, and with almost a catlike growl, she slashed at their faces with her nails. Caught by surprise, they fell back, giving her the opportunity to escape around the carriage. As she ran, she suddenly kicked out at one of the outlaws who’d reached out to grab her. He doubled over, holding his groin where she’d kicked him with her booted foot.

“Helpless victim?” Richard wondered aloud. “I don’t think we’re even needed here, my Lord!” Wayne turned and gave him a feral grin.

They quickly descended on the outlaws, their swords flashing in the moonlight. As the right-handed Richard slashed out with his saber, he brought up his crossbow with his left, aimed and released the deadly bolt, which he’d already set to fire. The quarrel flew true to its mark. He heard a scream, but by then he’d turned his full attention to his opponent. He saw an opening in the brigand’s left side, and thrust with his saber. His victim’s eyes opened wide in shock, then glazed over when death took him.

Richard pulled his saber free, and turned to face the next challenger. He was suddenly struck from the side and thrown off his horse, losing his weapon in the process. He recovered his feet almost instantaneously, executing a reverse somersault, thus narrowly escaping being skewered. Two outlaws hurriedly descended on him from opposite directions, brandishing dirks. One grabbed Richard from behind while the other moved to run him through.

At the last possible moment, Richard kicked up with his powerful legs, stunning his attacker. He then bent forward, throwing his captor over his head. The assailant’s weapon went flying and Richard caught it in mid-air with a flourish. Not skipping a beat, Richard turned on his attackers; he leaped up, and in a lightning fast blur spun around and kicked out with his legs straight. Within moments both men were lying facedown in the pre-dawn dew covered grass.

By then, the rest of the outlaws decided that what had looked like easy prey was no longer worth the cost. Their attack had become a desperate retreat galvanized by a grim desire to escape with their lives.

To Richard’s surprise, he saw the lady they’d “rescued” fending off two attackers simultaneously with a cat o’ nine tales. The brigands retreated slowly in the face of her deadly onslaught. As one, they turned to run, splitting in two directions. She quickly lashed out at the nearest outlaw, catching him by the throat with her whip. She pulled back viciously, bringing him down.

The second one was getting away! Quickly recovering his saber, Richard gave a piercing whistle and started running. Nightwing quickly cut in next to him at a canter. Richard grabbed the pommel, swung up and over, and settled easily into his saddle. Nightwing snorted his approval. Richard grinned and spurred Nightwing into a full gallop in pursuit of the second outlaw before he made good his escape.

The Dark Knight meanwhile had bested his opponents against three to one odds. He was busy tying those who still posed a threat, and rendering medical aid to those who needed it; however, most of the wounded were almost beyond any earthly help.

As Richard chased after the fugitive outlaw, he again spurred Nightwing and was instantly gratified with a sudden burst of speed. They came up quickly on the running figure; Richard released his stirrups and went flying, landing squarely on his target.

They both went down in a tangle. The outlaw recovered first and kicked out at Richard, connecting solidly with his chin. Richard saw stars momentarily and tasted blood; still woozy he dived after his opponent, refusing to let him get away. As the outlaw turned to swing with his fist, Richard ducked, quickly placed his hands on the ground, and kicked straight up with both booted feet. He connected with the outlaw’s soft abdomen. His opponent went down, clutching his stomach.

“Do you stand down?” Richard demanded, his breathing coming in short gasps. The outlaw didn’t reply. Richard drew his sword, and held its point to the outlaw’s chin. He gently raised the brigand’s chin with the point of his saber. “Do you stand down?” he repeated. The frightened outlaw’s eyes opened wide in terror. He tried to answer, but no sound would emerge; he swallowed and tried again.

“Aye . . . I do,” he managed to croak. Richard gave him a rakish grin.

“I thought you would. Get up . . . the Dark Knight awaits your audience.” The outlaw’s eyes seemed to open even wider.

“No please! I beg you!” Unmindful of Richard’s blade, the prisoner crawled pathetically to Richard’s feet and hugged his boots. “Please! Do not turn me over to that devil’s spawn! Please! I heard he eats the hearts of the highwaymen he’s accosted!” His outright alarm surprised Richard. Devil’s spawn? That was a new one. Heh. Wait till I tell Bruce!

“On your feet. You’ve nothing to fear from the Dark Knight; on my honor, I swear that he does not eat vermin!” It took them almost ten minutes to return to the carriage and the others, however, because Richard’s prisoner kept collapsing in fear. Richard’s patience was sorely tested by having to pick him up every few moments; he almost decided to just run him through to put him out of his misery. He’d probably prefer a quick death to facing the Dark Knight’s justice.

When they arrived at the carriage, Richard was practically carrying his prisoner, whose use of his legs had finally failed him. Relieved, Richard threw him in a pile with the other outlaws. Five prisoners, one wounded grievously, and four dead; this was a terrible night’s work indeed. Sometimes the mission that the Nightriders had taken upon themselves sorely tried his very soul.

“Lady Selina . . . a thousand pardons, but my squire and I cannot reveal our true identities. To do so, would render us useless in our vow to bring law and justice to the outlying lands between Castle Wayne and Gotham Town. Rest assured, lady, that we are friends and not brigands.” Richard rolled his eyes at this speech. God’s Blood, but Bruce was laying it on a bit thick! He walked over to where they stood and crossed his arms waiting. Bruce saw him standing there impatiently.

“Robin, may I present the Lady Selina Kyle, first lady-in-waiting to the Princess Royal.” Richard’s ears pricked at this. The Princess Royal was his first cousin, Donna, whom Richard loved as dearly as a sister. Both she and her brother, Garth, the Crown Prince and heir to the throne, were extremely close to Richard.

Now that he thought of it, he seemed to recall Donna mentioning in one of her latest missives that a Lady Selina had recently joined her inner circle. Apparently his good aunt the Queen, had selected the lady not because of a family tradition, but because of her fighting skills. His Aunt Diana no doubt felt that his beautiful, yet somewhat headstrong, cousin needed a keeper!

Richard chivalrously kissed the lady’s proffered hand. “Selina . . . according to legend, the goddess of the moon. ‘ It’s indeed a pleasure to meet such a beautiful moon goddess on a moonlit night such as this.” Lady Selina laughed gently.

“I had no idea that the Dark Knight and his squire were such gallants! These brigands killed my driver, a loyal servant who’s been with my family since before I was born. You gentlemen rescued me and for that I shall be forever in your debt.”

“The pleasure was ours, my lady,” Wayne protested.

“Indeed. We hardly did anything,” Richard added. “If we hadn’t arrived, it probably would’ve taken you about five more minutes to dispense with the riffraff.” Lady Selina laughed lightly. Her laughter reminded Richard almost of a cat’s contented purring.

“Robin, let’s load the prisoners and the wounded into the carriage. We’ll leave word with the castle guard as to the location of the dead. Have a couple of the prisoners properly wrap the bodies in their capes to keep them from becoming carrion food.” Richard nodded and moved to carry out his orders.

As the eastern horizon lightened, the exhausted party arrived outside the gates of Castle Wayne.

“Dawn is almost upon us, Lady; therefore, I’m afraid that this is where we must part company,” Wayne said reluctantly. “You’ll be safe here. The morning watch will lower the drawbridge within the half candle mark.” Wayne looked intensely into her eyes. “Should we never meet again, Lady Selina. Fair thee well.”

“Fair thee well, Dark Knight,” Lady Selina said quietly. The Dark Knight and Robin turned their steeds quickly and disappeared into the morning mists.

Chapter Three

“Richard Grayson!” Barbara’s voice pierced his dreams. “The sun is halfway up towards its zenith and you are still a bed!” Richard tried burrowing deeper into his bedcovers. These were instantly pulled off. The morning chill quickly woke him.

“Lady Barbara, it’s the middle of the night,” he groaned. Barbara quickly drew the curtains and the bright sunlight suddenly streamed in, blinding him. “Argh!” He turned away from the white light. “What are you doing in my chambers at this unholy hour? Are you trying to kill me?”

“That’s a tempting thought,” Barbara replied. “However, father sent me to fetch you. Apparently you are late for your private fencing lesson with the Captain of the Guard.”

Richard sighed. He’d had little more than two hours sleep and felt thoroughly exhausted. He noticed for the first time that he was lying in bed in his undergarments without any type of cover. Lady Barbara was in his bedchamber and he was practically naked!

He quickly grabbed his bedcovers and hiked them up to his chin.

“I respectfully request that you leave my chambers immediately, Barbara Gordon!” Richard protested. “‘ It’s most unseemly that a virtuous young maiden such as yourself should be in the chambers of a king’s knight!”

“Oh, pish posh, Richard Grayson! I helped your dear mother, Lady Mary change your nappies when you were still a wee babe in arms. There’s nothing you have that I haven’t seen all ready!” Barbara stood in the center of Richard’s chambers with her arms crossed, a look of utter contempt in her flashing eyes.

Richard’s own eyes narrowed at the challenge. “Oh, is that right?” he said. He immediately threw off his covers and jumped out of bed. They stood staring at each other for what seemed an eternity. Richard deliberately approached her, instinctively assuming the predatory stance he utilized in a sword fight. Barbara suddenly swallowed.

Richard was only wearing a white muslin breechcloth intended as an undergarment. His perfectly proportioned physique, marred by four not quite healed welts across the rib cage, gave him the appearance of a young Greek god. Barbara’s cheeks blushed crimson . . . she could see right through his breechcloth!

“Oh!” Barbara yelped, and hurriedly turned her back, intending to rush out of the room; however, Richard was too fast for her, grabbing her from behind.

“What’s your hurry, my Lady?” Richard held her by the arms, her back to him; he’d spoken in low suggestive tones. “I thought that I had nothing to show you that you hadn’t seen already in your much greater experience. Perhaps you would care to share some of your knowledge with me? I am after all your junior by five years; I lack your education in certain . . . nonacademic . . . subjects.”

As he talked, Barbara could feel Richard’s hot breath on her neck. She felt herself being willingly drawn into his hypnotic spell, a fly to a burning taper. He gently ran his hands up her arms, caressing her neck lightly with his cheek. Abruptly, Richard turned her to him, locking her arms behind her.

She’d tried to raise his ire with her taunting words yet again, and this time she’d succeeded! In a fit of pique, Richard held her a bit tighter and more roughly than his normally good-humored nature would have allowed. He’d always liked and respected Barbara. Most of the time he thought of her as an annoying older sister, but lately there were times when he caught himself staring her and suddenly feeling as if the earth had ceased to turn on its axis.

Then there was her searing tongue, which always left him the loser in their ongoing battle of wits. Well, it was his turn.

“I don’t have anything show you, do I?” He asked, his voice deceptively mild. “We’ll see about that, my dear caustic lady!”

Richard kissed her fully in the mouth. Because Barbara stood an inch taller than he did, Richard found himself having to stand slightly on his tiptoes; however, as Barbara willingly succumbed to his increasing pressure, she seemed to melt into his arms, their bodies becoming as one. What had started out as a cruel joke to goad her into a fit of anger, turned into a passionately burning kiss that neither of them expected. Barbara responded with a ferocity that she’d never suspected was within her; while Richard’s rising hunger ignited the hidden desire that had long smoldered just below the surface.

As their communal sense of propriety suddenly settled over them, they each became aware of what they were doing. They immediately broke apart, neither able to breathe. They stood a handswidth apart and gazed in mutual shock into each other’s eyes.

“My lady,” Richard gasped, horrified at his conduct. He immediately kneeled and bowed his head. “I beg your forgiveness . . . I wouldst fain cut out my own heart as bring thee dishonor. You are and ever have been my true and dearest friend . . . a sister of my heart.”

“Please, Sir Richard,” Barbara cried, her face covered in disgrace. “Let us not bring mention of this shameful moment again. We were both in the wrong.” She turned to go. “I should not have teased you. You are no longer the wee lad with whom I used to play in the nursery. You are a knight and should be treated with the dignity afforded your station. If anyone should ask for forgiveness, it is I.” She paused at the door. “Father expects you at mid-morn.”

Richard nodded in acquiescence. The soft closing of the door jerked him back. He couldn’t believe what he’d almost done. His knightly vows of chastity, chivalry, and honor almost cast carelessly off. “Oh, fie on all that!” He said angrily. “I deliberately tried to hurt Barbara. That is unforgivable! She may have the sharpest tongue in all of Avalon, but there isn’t a dearer lady anywhere.” He sat on his bed and held his head in shame.

A soft knock on the door roused him.

“Yes, who goes?” he called.

“‘ It’s Alfred, Sir Richard. I heard you moving about and wondered if you’d care to break your fast?” Richard was in no mood to be coddled right at this moment, but remembering his rude behavior of the previous night, sighed and bid Alfred enter.

As Alfred laid out a lovely morning meal, Richard went into his accompanying chamber to refresh himself. “I must be an utter wretch to have brought pain on two of my dearest friends within the space of only a few hours,” he muttered.

Richard quickly hurried through his morning routine. He dressed in simple homespun woolen breeches and shirt; over this he threw on an open jerkin made of soft calf’s leather. Lastly, he pulled on an old pair of scuffed boots. Past experience had taught him that when fencing against Captain Gordon, the wise man dressed in clothes he didn’t mind getting torn and bloodied.

Alfred took one look at his young charge and raised an eyebrow in silent disapproval. Richard blushed guiltily, but held his ground. He’d lost too many silk shirts in the past to relish the loss of another. Alfred gave a long-suffering sigh but didn’t say anything. Today’s youth, he tasked.

Finally, Richard sat down to his breakfast. He would have preferred to slap a piece of cheese between two slices of bread, but Alfred hovered over him, insisting that he eat a hearty meal so to best meet the day’s challenges. Richard smiled gamely and forced himself to swallow the various sweet breads and fruits that Alfred placed before him.

Less than a candlemark later, Richard was leaping, dodging, and otherwise moving as quickly as his athletic skills would allow. Captain Gordon took no pity on those of noble blood, and if his current opponent just happened to be the only living nephew of her Majesty the Queen, so much the better. Gordon’s task was to ensure that his noble charge did not become the late nephew of the Queen.

Richard’s weekly lessons with the Captain of the Guard took almost as much out of him as his nightly fencing lessons with Lord Wayne. While Wayne was twice the swordsman, introducing all manner of unique fighting skills along with his own superior swordsmanship, Gordon had the advanced experience of having fought in several campaigns in the service of the Crown. King Orrin was the third ruler under whom Gordon had served faithfully and with distinction.

“Sir Richard, you show improvement, lad!” Gordon complimented easily. Richard noticed that Gordon wasn’t even breathing hard. “You’ve finally managed to parry the thrust to your weak side. I’ve tried to break through your left twice now, and each time you’ve successfully beaten back my attack! Excellent riposte, lad!” Richard grinned at the compliment to his immediate counterattack following his parry of Gordon’s feint.

Gordon was trying to distract Richard into listening to him talk and thus lose track of the job at hand. Well, it wouldn’t work this time!

Never mind that it’s worked each time before, Richard amended chagrinned.

Time to try something new. Richard began his attack. He started by lunging at the fencing master, extending his sword arm and threatening with his forte. Gordon easily counter-parried, quickly moving around the opposite side of Richard’s foil. He saw Richard’s open side and moved in for the win. This was what Richard had been waiting for.

Richard planted his lead foot, then leaped up splitting his legs outward and upward; thus quicker than the eye could follow, when Gordon lunged forward, his sword sliced empty air. Richard’s forward arc cleared over and above Gordon’s head, catching the elder swordsman flatfooted. As Richard landed lightly, he immediately turned and assumed an en garde stance. Chivalry dictated that he wait for his opponent to recover and resume the game.

“How’s that for a balestra, Captain Gordon?” Richard asked amusedly. He referred to a fencer’s use of a forward hop or leap. “You did mention during our previous lesson that the wise swordsman knows how to incorporate a certain change of pace.” Gordon gave Richard an exasperated look.

“Aye, lad, that I did. But my intention was not to have you turn this gentleman’s sport into a circus sideshow.”

“But Captain, you said it yourself . . . I’m but a lad! I love the circus!” Richard said grinning.

“Gentleman’s sport!” Barbara’s derisive voice broke over their conversation. “‘ It’s nothing but a means for boys to play at being men by inflicting as much pain and damage on one another!” Both men stood down temporarily and turned to Gordon’s daughter.

“Barbara! Mind your tongue, girl! Or I’ll have Sir Richard here challenge you to a duel with epees instead of foils.”

The epees in the Wayne armory were used as dueling swords, and were each thus hewn to a deadly point. Captain Gordon used the foils as training tools only, and thus these ended in a blunt point. “Father, an epee in Dicky’s hands is a danger solely to himself!” Barbara’s countenance flashed a challenge in Richard’s direction, daring him for a rebuttal. It seemed to Barbara that when he gazed back at her, Richard’s eyes glinted like the icy blue waters of his native Solway Firth off whose shores his ancestral home lay.

Richard set his lips in a straight line and bit down hard to keep from responding in anger. Why must she provoke him so? Why must she always say things that were meant to cause him to look the fool? Richard turned away without answering and faced Gordon for their last go-round.

He had to get away from here. He had to get away from her. He looked over by the railing and saw that Wallace and Roy were grinning broadly as they watched the proceedings. So, she had played to those two again.

“Captain, I have an audience with Lord Wayne this morn. Let us finish the lesson so that I may arrive at the appointed time.” Gordon nodded. They each assumed an en garde position then began their final bout. Richard’s anger continued to fester. Gordon feinted and Richard bit. It was over in an instant. Richard nodded stiffly to Gordon.

“My thanks, Captain, for your time and continuing patience over my poor form and slow-wittedness. Now I must keep my appointment.” A young page arrived to take Richard’s fencing equipment. Richard turned stiffly and began the short trek back to the castle’s main residence.

“Richard!” Richard paused at Barbara’s call. “A word please.” Richard waited where he’d stopped, not turning around. She approached him tentatively. “We have to talk,” she said softly.

“What is there to talk about, milady? You said it yourself. The less that is said of my shameful conduct the better. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have duties.” Richard made as if to continue, when Barbara angrily grabbed his sword arm. Richard instinctively seized her wrist. Thankfully, he caught himself before he threw her head over heels.

“You should know better than that, Lady!” he hissed harshly. “You’re a trained swordswoman! Your father’s daughter! I just came off the training circle . . . you know what I’m capable of!”

“Indeed I do, Sir Knight! Therefore, if you won’t speak to me civilly, you’ll answer to this!” To Richard’s shock, Barbara grabbed his sword by the hilt unsheathing it, and she immediately lunged at him. His battle instincts took over. He instantly dove and rolled; he then kicked out and swept Barbara’s legs out from under her. Caught off guard she yelled in surprise, losing the sword in the process.

As she went airborne, Richard easily sprang up. Moving as if in slow motion, Richard caught the sword in his right hand, and before Barbara could hit the ground, caught her by the waist with his left; he hauled her none to gently to her feet. As time seemed to resume, she shoved him away in humiliated anger. Richard did not let go quite that easily.

“Next time you draw a sword against an unarmed opponent, milady, ensure that unarmed means no longer dangerous.” With that he released Barbara, spun on his heel, and continued on his return to Castle Wayne, resheathing his sword in the process.

Watching his retreating back, Barbara spluttered, unable to respond. “Ooh! You . . . you . . . ooh!” Barbara spun on her own heels and stomped away, going in the opposite direction that Richard had taken.

Wallace and Roy had observed their actions and exchanged amused glances.

“How many children do you suppose they’ll have?” Wallace asked in mock seriousness.

“At least a baker’s dozen,” Roy responded. “Assuming they don’t kill each other first.” Both men slapped their raised fists in hearty amusement, and laughing took their turns at the practice ring.

 

“They’ve moved their itinerary up,” Wayne said. “That’s why Lady Selina traveled this distance alone.”

They were in Wayne’s private study, which overlooked the mouth of the Tyne. A balcony jutted outwards, on the edge of the sheer cliffs that dropped straight down to the rocky, churning waters of the North Sea below. The walls and floors of the study were elegantly covered with handcrafted tapestries depicting both scenes from history and from daily castle life. This was Richard’s favorite room and he came here often to read and meditate.

“I was visiting friends in Gotham Town when the King’s messenger arrived by ship. Their Majesties requested that I travel to Castle Wayne immediately to inform you of the change of plans. I did not have the time to hire an escort, so I decided to chance the short distance here.” She paused sadly, dropping her eyes. “Because of my impatience, my retainer Roland, a dear and loyal friend, was murdered by those brigands!”

“You have our deepest sympathy, milady,” Wayne said. “Richard, we must immediately send the Honor Guard to meet the Royal entourage. They should be about three days to the South of us by now. Probably staying at Fountains Abbey along the River Skell. Queen Diana is good friends with the abbey’s Monsignor Aislabie. I want you to lead the Honor Guard,” he added meaningfully. In other words, Wayne wanted his trusted squire, Robin, to be there in case of trouble. “Alfred, you know what to do. We must prepare a feast fit for a king . . . I know that you and the household staff will not disappoint. Richard, take Sir Wallace and Sir Roy with you . . . I want you to have our fastest swordsman and finest archer at your side when you meet their Royal Majesties.”

Richard nodded; dismissed, he and Alfred left to prepare for their required duties. The Lady Selina elected to remain a moment longer.

“My lord, may I extend my warmest thanks for your hospitality. The Dark Knight and his Squire Robin surely saved my life last night, but your warm welcome to a weary traveler–”

“Milady, please . . . it is my honor and my pleasure. Being situated in the North Country upon the Tyne River, Castle Wayne’s location between the Wastelands and Gotham Town to the North and the Midlands and Metropolis to the South, makes us the traveler’s haven. That would be unseemly of myself or my staff to not welcome all travelers on their long journeys.” He gazed intently into Lady Selina’s eyes. “Although sometimes there are certain travelers whom we welcome more than others.”

Selina’s eyes lit at his meaning. “Indeed, my lord,” she murmured.

 

Barbara walked slowly, almost pensively through the castle gardens. For once the fragrance from the cultivated blooms did not enchant. She’d been such a fool! What was wrong with her? Drawing a sword on Richard? Probably one of the finest swordsmen in the realm? And this morning . . . when he’d kissed her! She’d responded . . . passionately, eagerly!

She’d kissed Richard . . . little Dicky! Whom she used to watch carefully because of his tendency to wander off the castle grounds as a wee lad. Nay! He was no longer Dicky . . . no longer a wee lad. This morn she’d seen only too clearly what a fine figure of a man he’d grown into. She blushed again at the searing memory of Richard standing before her practically unclothed.

“‘This is too late,” she murmured. “In all likelihood, I have rightfully earned Richard’s eternal scorn. I am a fool.”

“Nay, milady, you are not, and I would challenge the scalawag who wouldst dare cast calumny on your good name.” Barbara spun at the sound of his voice. Richard approached her slowly, the moonlight glinting off his mail. Barbara saw that Richard was dressed proudly in his full Grayson livery. “I ride south and west at the candlemark, Barbara. I could not leave Castle Wayne without first putting to right that which has come between us.”

A mere arm’s length separated the two young people by then.

“Richard, I–!” Barbara began, but Richard interrupted her.

“Nay, milady . . . I must speak first,” he said. “I have been a knave and a scoundrel. I would not blame you, should you choose never to speak to me again. My behavior today was inexorable and unforgivable.” He took her hand in his and turned a beseeching glance upon her. Barbara gasped as Richard then lowered himself to one knee, his head bowed. “But I do beg your forgiveness, nevertheless, Lady Barbara. I beg to be allowed return to your good graces . . . and I swear on my honor as the hereditary Chieftain of Clan Grayson and all of Dumfrieshire and Strathclyde that I shall be your sworn champion from this day forth.”

“Oh, Richard, there’s no need of that!” Barbara said smiling through tears, pulling him up. “The Clans Gordon and Grayson have been allies for generations. We are kinsman and kinswoman on our fathers’ sides . . . some five generations removed.” They stood with barely a whisper separating them. “More importantly, we have been dear friends since childhood. You have been the brother of my heart–”

“–As you have been the sister of mine!”

“–As you are now the heart of my heart,” she whispered, their lips moving closer.

“–Soul of my soul,” he finished. They kissed, a soft chaste kiss, ethereal as the moonlight in which they stood. When they parted an eternity later, it was as if to a world reborn. He tenderly caressed her cheek, his touch feather soft. “Before I leave, may I ask your father for your hand?” He held his breath in anticipation of her answer. At her eager nod, his face lit in reflected joy, and just as suddenly fell.

“What is it?” she asked worriedly.

“My guardianship,” he explained. “I may enter into a betrothal contract, but I can’t marry or come into my inheritance until I’m one and twenty.” Barbara smiled.

“‘That would seem, good sir, that you and I are about to enter into the world’s longest betrothal.” Her smile turned impish. “It wouldn’t do for me to marry a mere lad, would it now? I mean it seems only yesterday that I searched hill and dale for you after you’d yet again wandered out of the castle gates.” Richard laughed softly.

“What do you mean wandered? I never wandered! I always knew what I was doing . . . I got you to come looking for me, didn’t I?” They both laughed softly. Catching the glint of moonlight on her hair, Richard caught his breath. “Heart of my heart . . . soul of my soul . . . beloved sister yesterday, betrothed tonight . . . I love you, Barbara Gordon.”

As he spoke, Richard slowly gathered her gently in his arms, and kissed her once again, deeply and yearningly, a kiss that would have to last them for the upcoming days spent apart.

Chapter Four

Richard rode at the head of the column on Nightwing. Wallace and Roy rode on either side of him. As usual, they were finding amusement in teasing Richard unmercifully.

“Even when we were children she always liked him best!” declared Roy.

“Aye! I remember that time when we stole into Cook’s larder and ate the peach preserves,” said Wallace. “I received such a tanning, that to this day I still think twice before I sit down!”

“And our studies . . . Barbara always helped him with his Latin more so than she did us!” Roy added.

“Especially in conjugations. Remember ama, amas, am–” began Wallace. Annoyed, Richard pulled back on Nightwing’s reins and interrupted him. He made an abrupt slashing motion with his gauntleted hand.

“Enough! You two missed your calling. You should have been court jesters. Now, you’d best mind your tongues,” he added deadly serious. “The lady said yes! Any remarks made now, even in jest, are a direct insult and invite a challenge.” He looked at them both in turn, his hard blue eyes narrowed. “Do you I make myself clear?”

Both Wallace and Roy swallowed.

“Of course, Richard!” “You only have our best wishes!” “Aye! The Lady Barbara is a gracious beauty.” Richard nodded sharply.

“I’m riding back to check the column,” he said. “Take over, Wallace!”

Wallace saluted smartly. He turned to Roy and said sotto voce, “I don’t know what married life to that hellcat is going to be like . . . but I suspect that it will not be dull!” They both threw back their heads and guffawed. Wallace added, “Take the point, Sir Roy, before we say something that will result in our being skewered at the end of a Grayson claymore!”

“Aye, Sir Wallace!” Roy gave him a mock salute and spurred his horse to ride on ahead.

The column rode at a killing pace. Richard could not chance the royal party being overcome by any of the dark forces, which he and Wayne had encountered previously. Therefore, they made record time arriving at Fountain Abbey after being on the road less than sixty hours. When they cleared the hill that overlooked the abbey, Richard sent Sir Roy on ahead bearing the Wayne Honor Colors to inform His Majesty of their arrival.

Within a few minutes, the Wayne Colors, a black bird on a field of midnight blue, were hung from the gates as a sign of welcome. Three figures suddenly ran out the gates and began waving. Richard’s sharp eyes made out Roy accompanied by her Royal Highness, Princess Donna; the third figure he couldn’t recognize from this distance. Richard waved in salutation. Turning, he called the column forward.

“Dicky! Dicky!” Donna waved happily from the side of the graveled path as the Wayne Honor Guard rode proudly through the front gates. Richard waved and smiled, too glad to see his beloved cousin to feel annoyed at the use of the childhood nickname. Next to her stood . . . Richard did a double-take . . . the Minnow?! This fully-grown man couldn’t be the same Prince Garth, that he remembered from childhood. Why he was as tall as Richard now!

“How now, cousin?” Garth waved grinning. “Yes, it is I . . . the Minnow . . . I’ve grown a bit since last we met!” The children had nicknamed Prince Garth, the Minnow, as much for his diminutive size as for his love of swimming. Richard shook his head, shot his two cousins a friendly wave, then concentrated on leading the column in a parade to present to his King.

Their Royal Majesties stood on the balcony overlooking the graveled path leading to the abbey’s monastery. The column paraded smartly below, demonstrating superior horsemanship. As one they came to a halt directly below the balcony. Richard rode Nightwing to center front. In a single motion, he drew his sword and saluted his King and Queen.

“Honor Guard . . . present arms!” As one, fifty sabers flashed in the late morning sun. Holding his saber at his right shoulder, Richard turned Nightwing and rode down the column inspecting the line. He returned to center front and again saluted smartly with his saber. “Your Most Gracious Majesties, I bring you greetings from your most humble and loyal servant, Bruce Lord Wayne! This Honor Guard is presented to your Majesties to escort you on your safe journey to Castle Wayne. Do you accept this token of Lord Wayne’s servitude?”

King Orrin solemnly nodded his acceptance. Queen Diana spoke for them.

“We accept this token of Lord Wayne’s servitude with gratitude. But who is this handsome knight who serves as Captain of the Honor Guard? Surely this isn’t my beloved sister’s son . . . my own dear nephew, Dicky Grayson?” Richard thought he heard a snort, quickly smothered, coming from the ranks. Women! Why must I always be the butt of their jokes? Still this was his queen. Richard smiled weakly and bowed his head.

“Aye, Your Most Gracious Majesty. It is I, your nephew, Sir Richard Grayson.” Queen Diana smiled then blew him a kiss. This time Richard heard a few more coughs and snorts from the ranks. He felt his ears burning hotly.

“Sir Richard, you may dismiss the guard . . . the monks will show them to their quarters and the stables. Please, when you’re finished with your duties, join your uncle the king, and myself here in the guest quarters!”

Richard bowed his head in acquiescence. “Sergeant of the Guard!” The sergeant rode quickly to the head of the column. “Take over, sergeant. See to the horses and the men.”

The noncom nodded. “I shall personally bed down Nightwing, sir . . . Never in all my life have I ever seen a finer horse than he.” Richard grinned. If the sergeant were trying to get in his good graces, praising Nightwing would certainly do the trick. Richard dismounted and tossed the reins to the noncom.

“Give the old boy an extra helping of oats, Sergeant. He’s certainly earned it!”

As the sergeant led Nightwing away, Donna came running up the path, her arms opened wide in welcome.

“Dicky! Oh, Dicky! I’m so happy to see you!” she cried. Richard ran up to her and spun her around in his arms.

“And I you, cousin!” he replied smiling. Garth came up to them and slapped Richard on the back.

“Dicky, well met, cousin! When are you going to leave that godforsaken North Country and come back to civilization and reside with us in the royal palace in Metropolis?” Richard released Donna and shook Garth’s proffered hand.

“Never, cousin! For there is no more wonderful country in all the realm than that of the North . . . unless of course, you consider my ancestral home in the Lowlands.” Garth rolled his eyes. He’d heard this before! Garth might love Richard like a brother, but he believed him to be so provincial!

“What news from the North Country, cousin?” Garth asked. “Do you still sit by the fields and watch the corn grow? Still spend your live long days moving rocks from a farmer’s field to mend the decaying walls of Castle Wayne?”

“Aye, Your Highness, the corn grows green in the warm spring sun. Thank you for asking; your loyal subjects will rejoice in gladness when they hear of the immense interest you show about their daily toil. As for the walls of Castle Wayne . . . they have stood nigh unto twelve generations of Waynes. You need not worry, my prince, that this is the year the Wayne battlements will tumble.”

Garth cleared his throat in embarrassment. Richard grinned at his royal cousin’s obvious discomfiture.

“Oh, as for news . . . well, my dear cousins, I bring only the most joyful tidings. Roy! Wallace! Come, let us join my dear uncle and aunt in the guest chambers, for the news I bear are for my dearest friends and family to share!”

 

Queen Diana kissed her nephew on both cheeks at the news.

“I’m so happy for you, dear Richard, and I know that your mother and father would have heartily approved. They both thought the world of Barbara, and I wouldn’t put it past my dear sister Mary that she might not have even secretly planned the whole thing.”

“Oh, Mother, really,” chided Donna. “How could dear Aunt Mary have planned such a thing? Dicky and Barbara were years apart then; why Barbara used to mind us children whenever we visited Graetheson Court. I remember clearly how Dicky used to drive her to distraction, always sneaking out of the castle gates!”

“Even back then our cousin was getting women to chase shamelessly after him,” said Garth amusedly.

“Aye, Your Highness! Richard has all the maids in the North Country sighing in their sleep,” said Roy helpfully.

“But now that I’m betrothed to the fairest maiden of them all, Roy,” Dick said good-naturedly, “they’ll likely turn their broken hearts in your direction for mending.”

“Oh, really?” asked Donna icily, her chin tilted haughtily, narrowed eyes glaring at Roy. Richard and Garth exchanged amused glances. The relationship between Donna and Roy could best be described as a dog with fleas. They found each other to be a constant source of irritation, but they nonetheless loved to scratch the itch. Roy raised a single eyebrow in his usual smirk.

“What can I say, Your Highness? The ladies find me irresistible!”

“And what of me?” protested Wallace. “Am I to die of a lonely old age? Richard, you must send me my fair share!”

“Fair share of what?” The gathering turned towards the newcomer.

“Uncle Barry!” Wallace cried happily. He quickly crossed the drawing room and hugged his favorite uncle in greeting. “Well met, Uncle! How fairs my dear Aunt Iris?” Sir Barry smiled broadly, happy to see his nephew. Seeing the royal family in the room, he immediately greeted his sovereigns formally.

“Your Majesties, forgive the intrusion . . . but when I heard that my nephew was here on the Abbey’s grounds–”

“No apology needed, Sir Barry,” Orrin said. “The Queen and I know what it is like to greet a much beloved nephew.” Orrin smiled at Richard when he said this. “Besides the Queen’s Champion is entitled to interrupt the Royal Family in order to carry out his duties.” Sir Barry had the reputation of being the fastest swordsman in the realm and as such had earned the title of Queen’s Champion.

“And where is that speedy rascal, Roy Harper?” Sir Oliver Queen made a sudden appearance. Sir Oliver was the King’s Champion and the finest archer in the entire realm. He’d raised Roy since infancy and taught him everything he knew about archery and weapons. Roy’s exper It’se was second only to Sir Oliver’s.

“Oliver! How now, King’s Champion?” Roy greeted easily. “I heard up in the North Country that you missed a shot some three months past. Is there any truth to this vile rumor?”

The others held their collective breaths. Richard could suddenly hear the Guards’ horses whinnying in stables, almost two hundred yards away. Sir Oliver’s sky blue eyes narrowed instantly.

“I shot ten consecutive arrows into a target three hundred yards away. Each arrow sliced through the previous arrow in the bullseye . . . but one . . . one was struck by a sudden gust of wind and hit the target a hairsbreadth off center. Thus, it merely grazed the previous arrow, rather than fully slicing it.”

Roy crossed his arms and studied his guardian unsympathetically. “I see . . . and what have you done to correct the error since then?” Sir Oliver’s face was by now set in a deep grimace. He advanced on Roy, then when he got within an arm’s length, he suddenly broke into a belly laugh and grabbed his ward by the waist, lifting him like a small child.

“Roy Harper, you rascal! I thought proximity to that old cold fish, Wayne, would cure you of your saucy tongue. I see I was wrong!” Oliver laughed happily unmindful of the Royal family’s presence. “Let me look at you, lad!” Oliver held Roy at arms length. “You’ve grown since last we met. Aye, you’re a good handsbreadth taller. And skinnier . . . don’t they feed you over at Castle Wayne? Or are they too busy catching your arrows in mid-flight?”

It was Roy’s turn to look discomfited. “How did you–?”

“A little night bird told me,” Oliver said enigmatically. Oliver was referring to an incident that had reached almost legendary proportions in the North Country. Roy had aimed a blunt-tipped arrow at Lord Wayne in jest, and without turning, Wayne had reached his hand out at the last possible moment and caught it in mid-flight. Roy was still trying to live it down.

“He caught it, Oliver! Without even turning . . . he caught it!”

“I see . . . and what have you done to correct the error since then?” Oliver asked unsympathetically. Guardian and ward looked into each other’s eyes and burst out in hearty laughter.

“Now that that’s over with,” Barry said, shaking his head, “how goes it, Richard? What tidings do you bring from the North Country?”

Chapter Five

The watch fires burned steadily along the encampment’s perimeter. Richard walked in the darkness outside the welcoming light cast by the flames. As Captain of the Honor Guard, his duties seemed endless. On the first night of a bivouac he preferred to check all security measures personally rather than entrust the duty to his seconds. He’d sent Roy and Wallace to scout the countryside ahead. They were overdue, but not long enough for alarm . . . yet.

Richard knew that he was covering his nervousness by walking the perimeter and checking on his night watch, for the third time since they’d pitched camp. He came on Post Three. Richard liked to set his outer listening posts according to a six-pointed star in order to maximize his listening capability. He whistled softly and waited for the appropriate challenge.

“Constant!” hissed the sentry.

“True,” replied Richard. Richard had selected a simple challenge and response phrase, his family’s own motto: Constant and True. However, he’d already decided that it’d be best to change it on the morrow; he’d only picked it because he’d been unable to think of anything else at the moment.

Richard approached the sentry who was standing his post quietly, yet alertly. Richard smiled in sa It’sfaction when he saw that it was John Dunrobin. They had been pages together in Castle Wayne before the Graysons’ untimely deaths prematurely elevated Richard’s status. One day he was a page, the next he was sitting out his nightlong vigil prior to taking his knightly vows. Dunrobin had remained a loyal friend throughout these years.

“Sir John, well met this moonless night,” Richard said softly in greeting. “Anything to report?”

“Nay, Sir Richard,” Dunrobin’s smile flashed in the gloom. “If anything with two legs crawls in yonder night, then it is comprised of shadows and air. I’ve heard nothing save the night owl and the occasional rabbit.” Richard saw with approval that Dunrobin held a crossbow cocked and ready to let fly.

“Very well, John. All other sentries report much the same as you.” Richard’s pensive tone alerted his friend.

“Is there something wrong, Richard?” Richard stood there in the night gazing out at the endless darkness. Everything was quiet. Everything was fine. Intellectually he knew that, but he had a feeling he couldn’t shake . . . a feeling of impending dread. Something was coming. He could feel it as surely as he was standing there. Dunrobin’s light touch on his shoulder startled him back.

“What–? Oh, no, no,” Richard denied, shaking his head. “There’s nothing wrong.” He smiled and shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. “Just jumping at shadows and air I suppose. I’d best turn in. When Roy and Wallace return from their reconnaissance, please send them directly to my quarters.” Dunrobin nodded and saluted smartly.

Richard sat at his field table writing a short communique to Wayne. When finished, he sat and stared pensively at the long, dancing shadows on the canvas walls of his tent cast by the single burning taper. Thoughts of Barbara kept coming to the fore of his consciousness: Barbara standing over him, hands on hips, scolding him for sneaking out of the castle compound yet again; Barbara throwing her head back, laughing joyously during last year’s Maypole Dance, her hair entwined with fresh spring flowers; Barbara looking up him in the moonlight, her eyes expressing her love.

Richard smiled at the images and immediately took out a second sheaf of parchment, sharpened another quill, dipped it in ink, and began writing a short note to her. He’d send both missives by horse messenger at first light. As he wrote, Richard looked at the furnishings in his tent without really seeing them. He normally traveled lightly while on campaign. The interior of his tent was quite Spartan by the standards set by most nobles. He had a single cot, field table, and chair. He shared a squire with Wallace and Roy, because he hated to be fussed over by assistants.

The squire in question, Garfield walked in at this moment and cleared his throat.

“Will that be all for the night, Sir Richard? May I get you anything else prior to your turning in?”

Richard looked up and smiled. “Nay, and thank you for asking, Garfield. You’d best turn in, lad. We’ll be breaking camp before first light, and you know how much Sir Wallace and Sir Roy require your careful ministrations in the morn.” Garfield grimaced. He did indeed.

Unfortunately for the poor young squire, while Richard preferred to do as much for himself as possible, Wallace and Roy felt no such aversion to personal attention. Whereas all Richard required of the young lad was hot water in the mornings and evenings for shaving and washing, the other two required their meals brought to them, assistance in dressing and undressing, and just about all manner of pampering that the nobility took for granted.

Similarly, while Richard insisted on brushing and polishing his own boots, as well as, cleaning and oiling his own equipment, Wallace and Roy required that Garfield have theirs all ready before sunup.

Naturally, the young squire was exceptionally devoted to Richard. It was Richard who took the time to show him his knightly duties, spent time with him whenever possible in the fencing circle, and held him spellbound into the wee hours with tales from the Time of the Dark. Young Garfield was still a few years from his knightly vows, but he knew after whom he would model himself.

The shouts woke him. He was standing barefoot outside the perimeter of the encampment dressed only in a flimsy nightshirt. Wallace was holding him by his sword arm. Instinctively, Richard grabbed Wallace’s wrist and in a single motion threw him head over heels. As Wallace landed on his posterior, Richard finally snapped out of his dream.

What was he doing out here? Others were soon running out towards them. Their Royal Highnesses’ countenances showed deep concern. Both appeared in various states of hasty dress.

“Richard! What goes? Are you all right, cousin!?” Garth and Donna called out, their voices tinged with worry.

“Wallace! Here, let me help you up,” Richard said offering Wallace his hand. As his royal cousins came up to him, it was all Richard could do to shake his head in confusion. “I do not understand. The last recollection I have is of going to bed. The next thing I know, I’m standing out here and tossing poor Wallace onto his backside.”

“I’m all right, Richard, but we’ve got to get you back to your tent! You’ll catch your death out here!” Wallace sounded just like Alfred, Richard thought amusedly, nodding distractedly. The guards who’d been alerted by Wallace’s shouts, returned to their posts once sa It’sfied that their captain was all right.

“Sleepwalking?” Orrin looked concerned. “This does not brook well, Richard. Your father was said to walk in his sleep when there was sorcery afoot.” Richard looked at his uncle uncomprehendingly.

“I don’t understand, Sire. I’ve ne’er heard tales of my father walking in his sleep.” Orrin looked at his Queen; she nodded her head slightly. “Richard, it is high time you know of your Romany heritage.” He paused. “But perhaps it is best that the Queen tell you herself.” Diana raised a single eyebrow at her husband, but closed her eyes in acquiescence.

“Dear Richard,” she began. “You have been raised by Lord Wayne for your own protection. The relative remoteness of Castle Wayne, Lord Wayne’s own superior prowess as a swordsman, Captain Gordon’s service to the Waynes and the Graysons . . . all of this added up to a safe haven for one whom we believe to be the last of the Romany sorcerers and the Emerald Guardians.” She paused to let the news sink in. She needn’t have bothered; she held Richard’s attention completely.

“Your father, John Grayson, came to my village as a small boy. Even then, he was already remarkably gifted. He could call down the rains on parched lands, talk to animals as if he were one of them, and most importantly, he could will the Emerald Eye to do his bidding. You may imagine our astonishment to discover that not only did the Romany blood run strongly in one so young, but that an Emerald Eye had survived from the time of the Mage Wars.”

“I don’t understand, Your Majesty,” Richard interrupted. “Why did father arrive in your village in the first place?”

“Because, dear nephew, my village is the last stronghold of the Amazon warrior women of legend. Generations before the time of the Great Mage War, our paradise island home in the Middle Sea was destroyed by the Macedonian legions. The last survivors found their way to Oa, a small storm-tossed island off the northeastern coast of Caledonia. There they were made welcome by a small enclave of the Order of Emerald Guardians. As warriors we promised our swords in the service of the Guardians because of their hospitality.” She smiled.

“They turned us down . . . however, their Abbot, Father Jordan requested that we help others in distress and to offer safe haven to those in need. When Mordant’s evil spread through the realm, the Emerald Guardians asked us to go out amongst Man’s realm and seek others whom might be of assistance in the continuous war against the Forces of Darkness. The Guardians had already recruited the last of the wandering Romanys who lived in the foothills that separated the Caledonian Lowlands from the High Country to the North. They knew that once they faced off against Mordant’s power that they would not be returning; however, they assured us that when the need arose again, others would follow.” Richard and his cousins were spellbound by her story.

“About five and forty years ago, a small lad, barely knee high to a badger, wandered into our village. He was hungry, lost, and alone. He said that he and his family had been at sea returning to their home in the Lowlands, when their vessel was set upon by a sudden storm. The storm was unnatural in its make, for the lad sensed a malevolence in it that shook him to the very core . . . What frightened him even more so was that he felt the evil malignancy was after him. His presence was endangering the lives of the other passengers, including his beloved mother and father. Therefore, this small, frightened boy gave the ultimate sacrifice. He threw himself overboard in order to save the others. As soon as the vessel was beyond his reach, the storm abated, and the sea calmed.” She shook her head in amazement.

“The lad managed to survive four days and nights out at sea. He was eventually washed on our shores and somehow dragged himself to our simple fishing village. We can only surmise that an outside power somehow saw to his safety. After a few days, he managed to regain sufficient strength to relate his tale to us. Naturally, we immediately dispatched a courier to his family’s estate to inform them of his survival. Meanwhile, the lad began to wander through our small rugged island, exploring its many secrets. Eventually, he discovered the Emerald Guardians’ monastery, and inexplicably drawn to it, he also found the Emerald Eye which now hangs around your neck.” Richard unconsciously grabbed the Emerald Eye and felt its comforting warmth.

“Somehow, the Eye spoke to him. He was able to see beyond our physical realm to other nether realms. He knew that Mordant was coming soon, within a generation, and that we had to prepare. He also knew that he would not live to do final battle with the Evil One, but that another more powerful than he would emerge within the generation . . . his own son. You Richard . . . the last true scion of a Romany sorcerer with the heart of an Amazon warrior . . . the last of the Emerald Chosen.” Diana paused dramatically.

“On the day of your Christening when we, your family, welcomed you into the service of Our Heavenly Father, your father’s amulet began to glow. It quickly enveloped the interior of Melrose Abbey the traditional cathedral where all Clan Grayson heirs have been christened for generations.” She paused in remembrance.

“A voice . . . and yet not a voice . . . spoke. It . . . he . . . she . . . addressed you . . .

“Richard John Grayson, you are the final hope of all Mankind . . . you are the Emerald Chosen . . . on you rests the power of the Emerald Warrior . . . Who is the Chosen’s Champion?” Bruce Lord Wayne stepped forward.

“I am.”

“Yes . . . you have been well chosen, Bruce Wayne . . . in you burn the fires of loyalty, integrity, and honor . . . rough hewn to perfection. You are the Dark Knight selected to protect the Chosen, the Emerald Warrior. You must prepare the child for the coming war against the Forces of Darkness. Within him lies the power of a thousand suns to cast Light upon the gathering Darkness; however, he must survive to his majority because the Dark seeks to extinguish the Light.”

“I don’t understand. How can I prepare him for such an event? I am but a man . . . ” Wayne protested.

“And that is why you are the Chosen’s Champion. For why should one who will wield the powers of the Old Gods take up the mantle to protect mere mortals if he doesn’t learn to love what he fights for? It shall be your task to teach him to love his fellow man and to desire above all else to be Mankind’s protector. For only then will the Emerald Warrior within awaken ready to do battle against the Heart of Darkness.”

Diana continued her tale.

“Outside, the mysterious voice’s pronouncement was greeted by the thundering rage of the Evil One. The skies turned black and opened as if in anger! It was if nature herself had been turned against us. We knew then that you had to be protected at all costs. Lord Wayne, your godfather and your father’s best friend from childhood, swore fealty to the Crown and the Graysons by agreeing to take over as your personal guardian until the need arose when you’d be called upon to use your long dormant mage powers. The Emerald Eye calls you now, my dear nephew. It is time that you look inward and call forth that which is within you.”

Richard sat stunned. Unconsciously, he fingered the Emerald Eye; as always, he felt a warmth spread from his fingertips and lightly envelop his entire being. He wanted to disbelieve his aunt’s words, but knew deep inside that they were true. Almost effortlessly, he felt himself being drawn inwardly . . . the royal field headquarters began to dissolve around him, along with his cousins and his aunt and uncle . . .

“Welcome, Emerald Chosen,” the solemn voice greets. “‘it’s time.” He opens his eyes. He is in a darkened corridor; he wishes for a light and suddenly a green glowing ember appears above and to his right. He blinks in the unexpected brightness. “Do not be afraid, Chosen . . . what you will witness are but shadows and air . . . they can neither see you nor hurt you. You will witness that which has past . . . and that which is yet to be.”

“Where am I?” he asks. No answer is forthcoming. He follows the corridor to its end. He comes upon a closed door. He tries it but it is locked. “Now what?”

“Go through the door, Chosen,” the voice whispers. “Simply will your body to walk through . . . the door has no substance; it is a mere shadow.”

“The door has no substance,” he whispers. “It is a shadow . . . my hand passes as through nothingness.” As he says it, he tentatively reaches his hand out, and it quickly goes through the door up to his forearm. He pulls back in sudden panic!

“Be not afraid, Chosen. You are protected by the Emerald Eye . . . the power of the Emerald Warrior . . . and your own Romany blood.” He takes several calming breaths, surreptitiously reaches for the Emerald Eye, then boldly steps through the door. He finds himself on the other side.

And immediately turns his head away in horror!

For he has walked into a place of unspeakable abominations. The missing children are here . . . each undergoing some torture more abhorrent than the previous. A child of no more than two summers lies on a table, slit from sternum to lower abdomen. The child’s lifeless eyes stare out at him, reflecting the terror undergone his last few days in this realm. A creature in blood red robes carefully collects the child’s blood in a vat; another almost lovingly removes his heart and each of his internal organs.

NO-OOO! He screams in his mind! NO-OOO! Please . . . my God . . . dear God in heaven . . . please! No more! No more!

He looks around in desperation. They can’t all be dead! They can’t! They CAN’T! He suddenly feels the glowing spark of life . . . weak but still alive. Over there! By the far wall . . . a young girl . . . about twelve. Her eyes are dull; the life force is weak within her, but it is there. He sees that she is hooked to some vile machinery that is pumping her life’s blood from her very veins! He reaches to disconnect the evil contrivance, but his fingers go through it.

NO! Please, help me . . ! What can I do . . ? Please, let me help . . ! I’ve got to help her . . ! Help me help her . . !

He is on his knees in supplication to the heavens above . . . to the disembodied voice . . . to the Emerald Eye . . . to his beloved mother and father . . . to anyone who will listen to his heartfelt pleas.

“Are these shadows of the past? Or are these poor children even now being destined to meet this unspeakable fate?” No answer. “Please! I must know! Can I still stop this? Tell me . . . I beg you . . . tell me . . . ”

The voice echoes softly in his head. “You cannot change that which has past . . . but you still have time to stop that which is yet to be.”

He feels eyes upon him. He slowly raises his head and sees the hapless girl-child’s eyes focus and look straight at him . . . she sees him . . . she can see him.

“Dear God in heaven, you can see me . . . ” he says horrified.

“Help me,” she whispers. “Please, help me . . . ” Her blue eyes glaze over. Her life force expires.

He screams.

 

“Richard! Richard! You’re here . . . you’re safe!” Donna’s voice cut through the screams. Who was screaming? Whoever it was sounded like an animal being tortured. Why didn’t somebody make him stop screaming? Why . . ? The screaming suddenly stopped. He couldn’t breathe! He couldn’t see . . . Why was everything so dark? What was happening?

He opened his eyes; they tore against the sudden light.

Roy and Wallace were each practically sitting on top of him. Garth was trying to hold back his arms. Wallace had the looks of an ugly bruise spreading from his left eye down his cheek. He was firmly holding his hand over Richard’s mouth. Coming to his senses suddenly, Richard stopped thrashing and attempted to take slow, measured breaths; he soon began to calm down.

Dazed, he looked around at his concerned family and friends. Wallace carefully removed his hand.

“What happened? What’s going on?” Richard’s friends looked relieved at his change in demeanor. Roy and Wallace began to climb off, when suddenly the nightmares that he’d witnessed came back to the fore. His face took on a horrified haunted look. Roy and Wallace immediately took up their positions again.

Richard didn’t fight them this time. Instead, he turned his head away from them and began openly weeping unashamedly. With a cry, Donna shooed everybody away from her beloved cousin and took him gently in her arms.

“Oh, Richard . . . whatever it is, let us help you. Please, dearest cousin, you’re breaking my heart. What can we do to help?” Richard held onto his cousin and cried helplessly in her arms. He hadn’t sobbed this hard since news of his parents’ deaths reached him all those years ago. Eventually, the storm passed and he lay quietly in her arms for a few more moments. Finally, swallowing and gathering his inner strength, Richard broke their contact first.

“Thank you, my dearest cousin . . . I shall never forget your kindness in my hour of deepest, darkest despair. But I have indulged in personal grief too long. It is time.” Richard looked sadly at his beloved aunt and uncle. He stood slowly, then walked toward his King and Queen and kneeled before them.

“It is time, Your Majesties. Mordant even now crosses the Lowlands, burning and killing everything that is within his path. Within the fortnight, Graetheson Court will fall to his fires of destruction.” Donna gasped.

“Oh, Richard . . . No! Not Graetheson Court! Your home!”

“Aye, Your Highness . . . she falls, but do not despair. Homes can be rebuilt. It is the coming loss of countless human lives that causes me grief; however, that which is to be that has yet to happen, may yet not be! And that is what we must prevent, Majesties. The loss of countless innocent human lives . . . the loss of the most innocent amongst us . . . the children!” At the look of horror on the faces of their Majesties, Richard nodded sadly. “Aye, Majesties . . . Mordant seeks human sacrifice . . . and the sacrifice he seeks is that of the blood of our innocent children.”

Queen Diana, Amazon warrior-princess, gasped in shock. She quickly turned to her husband, who gently took her in his arms momentarily until she could regain her composure. “What can we do to help, nephew?” King Orrin asked.

“Uncle, we must break camp immediately and head North. We must send word to Wayne Castle and to the main body of your forces, which are still garrisoned in Metropolis that we are at war. Mordant crosses the Lowlands within the fortnight and amasses his Dark Legions a full three days ride north of Wayne Castle!” Richard paused and looked intently at his aunt and uncle.

“And I . . . I must learn the secrets of the Emerald Eye between now and when we face Mordant and his Armies of the Night.”

Chapter Six

Richard stood in front of Roy and Wallace; he’d selected Roy to ride to Castle Wayne and Wallace to ride south to Metropolis.

“You will each be given four of our fastest horses apiece . . . three of the steeds are to be used as remounts.” He gave them each a hard glare. “You are to ride at full gallop . . . You will stop to change horses only when the one being ridden is so spent, it collapses.”

Roy and Wallace looked at him in shock, but nodded their heads in grim understanding. The lives of countless people . . . countless children . . . were being entrusted to them. They had to be willing to sacrifice their horses in order to carry out their desperate mission . . .

Roy’s arrival at Castle Wayne was met with shock. The horse he’d been riding was nearly spent. It was his last; he’d lost the third horse well over four hours ago. As they rode through the castle gates, his loyal steed, as if realizing he’d accomplished his mission, collapsed.

As his horse fell under him, Roy released his stirrups and jumped clear. He rolled a few times and finally came to a stop. Exhausted he crawled slowly to where Wind had fallen. As Wind whinnied to his master, Roy gently lifted his head and stroked him one last time. Wind gave a final whinny and died.

“Thank you, old boy . . . You’re the real hero today. You and your three companions. You each gave your life so that innocent lives might be saved.” He bowed his head in silent prayer. Then shaking himself back to reality, Roy stood unsteadily and began walking toward the Castle’s main hall.

“Sir Roy!” Roy turned at the sound of his name. “What is the meaning of this? You rode a horse to death? Lord Wayne shall hear about this outrage!” Captain Gordon had walked up him, shouting in anger. Roy nodded his head tiredly.

“Aye, Captain Gordon, Lord Wayne will hear of this vile deed, and of others even more so. I have messages from Sir Richard and their Majesties that require Lord Wayne’s immediate attention.”

Gordon looked disbelievingly at the young knight. Then reluctantly nodded his head. Roy Harper might be young and reckless at times, but he had never mistreated an animal in Gordon’s recollection. No, these must be dire tidings indeed.

“Very well, Roy,” Gordon agreed. “Let us away to the main hall.” Roy nodded.

The message from their Majesties galvanized Castle Wayne into action. Wayne immediately ordered Alfred to set up a hospital. Lady Selina seemed to know something about the healing arts and had volunteered to stay and help. Wayne’s experience with war was that the sooner the wounded were transported to clean facilities the greater their chances of survival. His staff surgeon and apothecary’s assistant would accompany them to the front lines. There they’d set up a field hospital, but as soon as the wounded were stable enough for traveling, they’d be sent back to Castle Wayne for recuperation.

Wayne also ordered temporary housing for the inevitable refugees that war always displaced. Castle Wayne’s location between the armies to the north and the capital city to the south would make it a refugee’s safe haven. Field hands were working around the clock bringing in whatever feed and food crops that were ready for storage. In some cases, they were harvesting crops that hadn’t reached maturity. These would be set up in special drying areas and hopefully would prove useful as feed, perhaps.

“That is, if Castle Wayne still stands after the coming battle,” Wayne said grimly. He stood on his balcony overlooking the Tyne. All those years ago when he’d accepted the guardianship of his best friends’ son seemed to have passed in a blink. Wayne’s whole existence since Richard’s arrival at Castle Wayne had been devoted to the training of the young man whom he’d grown to regard as his own son. “Will you be ready, Richard?” he wondered aloud, then amended, “Are you ready, son?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Barbara!” Gordon said. He was distracted by the countless details that needed checking out. “You are not going into battle! Just who do you think you are? Some kind of Amazon warrior? You are a Gordon! And Gordon women support their men from the sidelines. Now run along and help Alfred set up the hospital. I’m busy!”

Gordon stomped away, marking his checklist as he walked. Barbara stood in the middle of the mass of confusion of men, women, and children who were pushing, pulling, or otherwise hauling carts, horses, other farm animals, and all manner of materials.

“Hey, miss!” “Please, make way there, milady!” “Lady Barbara, what are you doing in the middle of the street? You’ll be killed for sure!” Barbara turned despondently and began walking towards the main hall, when she suddenly stopped. This caused a chain reaction behind her that resulted in several carts being jammed together, men and women shouting in anger, and finally a fistfight breaking out. Barbara, however, was oblivious to the whole thing.

Smiling suddenly she lifted her riding skirt and ran to the main hall, quickly making her way up towards Richard’s apartments. She hurried down the hallway that led to Richard’s private quarters. Hearing voices coming from the opposite direction, she snatched her kerchief from her neck and began dusting the paintings that hung along the hall. She kept her back to the two women who passed by her.

“And he is just so handsome with his raven hair and blue eyes,” sighed one.

“Aye, but he is promised to another now,” despaired the other.

“But not for lack of trying on my part, I assure you,” the first one said. “I practically removed my bodice in his presence, and you know what the young gentleman said?”

“No! What?” prompted her companion.

“My lady, I’m sure you’ll catch your death out here, dressed like that. Please, take my cloak . . . I have another!” She laughed. “What could I do but take his cloak? I still have it!”

“Well, at least you have something of Sir Richard’s. All I have left are my dreams . . . ” Their voices quickly faded down the hall.

Barbara snorted after they were safely out of earshot. She’d been a witness to many of these young maids’ overtures upon Richard. At the time she hadn’t understood why they’d so greatly annoyed her; or, perhaps, she had known but was unable or unwilling to admit it to herself. When she thought of Richard now, it seemed as if she’d been in love with him all of her life. Her feelings for him had changed so gradually and over such a long period of time, that she couldn’t recall a single moment when she didn’t love him.

She smiled radiantly in sudden happiness. Barbara couldn’t blame any of those poor girls anymore for throwing themselves so brazenly at her Richard. If she hadn’t been hiding her true feelings for him from herself, she might’ve offered herself up to him a long time ago, too. Now, every time Barbara thought of Richard, her whole being just seemed to light up with an inner glow. If this was love, then everyone should experience it; it was just too wonderful for words.

Her soaring spirits suddenly came crashing down. If only they hadn’t discovered their mutual love on the eve of war. In a state of despair, Barbara sneaked into Richard’s quarters. She quickly made her way to his wardrobe. Opening it, she looked for anything that might prove as a suitable disguise for her. Richard and she were the about same height, but it went without saying that his clothing would be rather large for her. Nevertheless, she began to rummage through his wardrobe.

Barbara quickly found clothing that would suit her needs: the simple homespun woolen trousers that Richard preferred for every day use and an overly large linen shirt and leather jerkin that laced from the front. She found the sleeves for the shirt and quickly laced them to the shoulder eyelets. The too large shirt and jerkin would help hide her gender from curious eyes. Luckily she was wearing her own riding boots already; she’d been exercising her horse that morning when she’d accosted Captain Gordon.

Barbara caught her reflection in the dresser mirror. “I look like a maid dressed in men’s trousers,” she groused. She looked thoughtfully at her waist-length hair. A pair of cutting shears lay on Richard’s dresser. “Should I do it?” she asked herself aloud. She shook out her hair to its full length. “Could I do it?” She carefully curled a strand in her finger. “Richard will think that he’s gotten himself betrothed to a lunatic!” She shrugged in resignation. “He’ll think that anyway when he sees me dressed in his trousers!” She grabbed the cutting shears with new determination. “He’ll probably drop me off at Arkham Asylum in Gotham Town personally!”

Voices outside immediately froze her in place. She saw the door handle move. Oh my god, they were coming in here! She quickly climbed into the wardrobe and crouched as low as she possibly could. Who else would come into Richard’s chamber while he was away? Who besides Alfred, anyway? And neither of the voices she heard sounded even remotely like Alfred.

On an impulse, Barbara cracked the wardrobe’s door slightly open. The voices were clearer. Male and female. Oh no! thought Barbara. Please don’t tell me that I’m about to witness two lovers sneaking a liaison in Richard’s rooms? They were not in line of sight to her so she couldn’t see who they were.

“I tell you this is ridiculously dangerous! Do you know what they can do to us if we’re discovered together?” the woman’s voice sounded angry.

“Yes, my dear. They’ll suspect that we were having some sort of tryst,” he said, unconcernedly. As he spoke, Barbara thought that the man’s voice sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place the woman’s voice. She listened carefully as he continued.

“And why shouldn’t we? You are a serving maid who has willingly offered herself to any man looking for a tumble in the hayloft!” At this announcement the male moved into Barbara’s line of sight. It was Rapier! The King’s messenger who’d arrived almost a week past now. But who was the woman? At that moment, Bess walked into her line of vision.

What were Rapier and Bess doing in Richard’s chambers? And why would getting caught together be dangerous for them?

“You’re a fool, Rapier. Now what is so all-consuming important that it cannot wait?” Barbara noticed that Bess’ spoken English had improved considerably. She no longer sounded like a mere serving girl. Bess looked at Rapier impatiently. Rapier’s eyes narrowed in anger. He grabbed her violently by the arms and held her closely to him. “I’ll tell you what’s so important. The Dark Lord wants something that is close to Sir Richard in order to use against him. Something that he has worn close to his body . . . like the Emerald Eye, although that’s out of the question now, since he never removes it. The Dark Lord is not happy with you, my dear. You said that you’d be able to seduce Richard and obtain it. It seems, however, that Sir Richard finds you completely resistible.”

Bess’ beautiful features contorted into an ugly mask of hatred. Rapier grinned mockingly.

“Our Lord frowns on failure as you know; however, perhaps you can still make it up to our Master, by obtaining a suitable substitute . . . say, a religious medal or crucifix. You know these young knights . . . They actually believe in all of this chivalrous nonsense about how their knightly prowess is due to a direct intercession of their Heavenly Father.” Rapier shrugged unconcernedly. “Even a handkerchief or a glove could work.”

“Very well,” Bess said, pulling herself free from Rapier’s grasp. “You search the wardrobe, while I look on his dresser for any jewelry that he might have worn recently.” At Bess’ words, Barbara immediately crouched further inside the wardrobe. She saw a cloak hanging neatly on its hook. She took it and quickly covered herself, then burrowed even deeper into the clothing. Her heart pounding rapidly, her blood rushing in her ears, Barbara held her breath and sat as still as she could.

“Ah, what about this?” Rapier called to Bess.

“What about what?” she asked annoyed.

“His cloak. He surely must hold it carefully about himself during cold winter days.”

“Don’t be a fool, Rapier,” Bess replied scornfully. “A cloak is worn as the outermost piece of clothing. The chances of it touching Sir Richard sufficiently for our Dark Lord’s necromancy to work are very slim.” Barbara felt a sudden surge of relief wash over her.

“Perhaps you’re right, Bess,” Rapier said. “But then, it is an extremely becoming color. Let me see how it looks on me!” He pulled the cloak off of Barbara and stopped surprised. He stared into Barbara’s startled green eyes, and slowly began to grin. “Well, well, well . . . what do we have here?” he asked amused.

“What? What do you have?” Bess asked. She moved in closer and gasped in shock.

“I think I have just found exactly what our Dark Lord ordered . . . something very near and dear to our young Sir Richard . . ! The Emerald Chosen’s Chosen!” Rapier began laughing at his own cleverness. Bess soon joined him.

Wallace stumbled on the uneven dirt road. He’d lost his last mount about ten miles back and had been on foot since daybreak. He took a sip from his water-skin. The contents were woefully low. His water had to last him several more hours. Metropolis was still another full-day’s walk. He couldn’t fail; the fate of Avalon depended on him. And the children . . . Richard had told him about the children . . .

“Fare thee well, Wallace,” Richard said looking up him. “God speed!” Wallace saluted smartly then set off for Metropolis. He’d left feeling so proud and confident, so self-assured of success, but now he was in a near state of despair. King Orrin needed his garrison. His deplorably undermanned army was marching north to engage an inhuman enemy.

He couldn’t fail . . ! He wouldn’t fail . . ! His legs faltered . . . his knees gave way . . . darkness consumed him . . .

As consciousness seeped slowly back, Barbara assessed her situation. She felt herself being jostled uncomfortably. She was moving, then, probably in a carriage or a cart. She carefully slitted her eyes open. She was enveloped in total darkness; the air felt quite close and uncomfortably hot. She deduced that she was probably under some kind of tarpaulin. She was bound hand and foot and gagged as well. She felt like a plump goose about to be offered up for a Twelfth Night feast.

She fought like a wildcat, but was no match for the both of them. Rapier quickly placed a cloth over her mouth and she instantly lost consciousness. Her neck, legs and arms were stiff and cramped. She must have been like this for several hours at least. Had she been missed yet? Was anyone searching for her? She suddenly thought of Richard. Would she ever see him again?

She remembered the reason for her capture: They wanted her to get to him. Barbara began praying fervently that she never saw her betrothed again.

The savory smells of home cooking wended their way into his subconscious. Spices . . . thyme, rosemary . . . Aunt Iris used to cook her chicken soup with these spices. He felt suddenly homesick. He hadn’t seen his aunt in several months. He opened his eyes. He was in a simple one-room cabin, lying on its sole bed. He looked across the room. An older gentleman sat on a rocking chair, quietly enjoying a pipe. A young girl stood by the hearth, diligently stirring a pot, then checking on the contents of a pan lying in the burning embers, then stirring and tasting from several more.

She seemed impossibly young to be able to orchestrate such a complicated symphony. He watched quietly for a few moments more, enjoying her virtuosity. Then, noticing his parched throat he asked for water. Or at least, that’s what he had intended to do. What he actually did was utter an incomprehensible croak that startled his two benefactors.

“Here now,” the young girl said smiling. “He’s awake, Grampa! Would you care for a drink?” He nodded his head eagerly. She hurried to the table and carefully ladled water from a bucket into a cup. As she held the cup to his lips, Wallace noticed that it was chipped. It had a thin gold filament around the rim and a series of delicate pink flowers encircling it. He didn’t see any other cups in the open. Could this be their only one?

Wallace didn’t care at the moment. He was so grateful for the water, he gulped it down in two swallows. “Please, may I have some more?” She nodded eagerly and soon returned with a second cup of water. Wallace sat up and carefully took the prized cup in his hands. He drank a bit slower this time, savoring the feel of the soothing water in his mouth and throat. When he was finally finished, he thanked his hosts.

“Where am I,” he asked. “How far am I from Metropolis?”

“You’re in Metropolis,” the girl replied. “Or, at least, in the outskirts. Grampa and I found you about a half-day’s ride from town. We put you in our cart and brought you home with us.” She shrugged. “We figured that you must’ve been on your way into town anyway.”

Wallace smiled gratefully. “I am most beholden to you and your grandfather, Miss . . ?”

“Oh, I’m no Miss, sir . . . I’m just a serving girl who takes care of her Grandfather. My name’s Freyja.” She curtsied shyly. Wallace smiled, stood and bowed a bit unsteadily.

“I’m honored to make your acquaintance, Lady Freyja. I am Sir Wallace West, currently in the service of Bruce Lord Wayne. I am on urgent King’s business, Lady. Please can you show me where the King’s garrison is located? I have never been to the capital city before.”

Freyja blushed furiously. “May I, Grampa?”

Wallace spoke up. “Please, sir . . . I am on urgent King’s business! I must away immediately to the King’s garrison. Will you help, sir?”

“Aye,” the old man replied nodding. “I served under King Orrin’s own grandfather, Good King Athelwulf, when he fought against the Roman incursions. He was a good king, that one . . . united the Angles and the Saxons and successfully repelled numerous invasions from the mainland!” He turned to his granddaughter. “Freyja, take young Sir Wallace to the garrison. Lad, whatever help lies within our power to give is yours.”

“Sir, I don’t even know your name. Please, I must know to whom I am indebted!”

“My name is Eadred Athelstan . . . a goodly Saxon name, I wager. My great-great grandfather sailed the seas with the Norsemen,” he added proudly. “But the Old Saxon ways are dying, lad. We no longer sail on dragon ships to discover and conquer new lands; we are farmers, or as in my case, an old cobbler who sits by the fire dreaming of the old days, waiting to die.” He turned sadly away and sat back down in his rocker.

Wallace didn’t know what to say. He looked at Freyja who was looking sadly at her grandfather. He reached his hand out and touched her arm tentatively. She turned tear-brimmed eyes to him, then just as quickly looked away.

“Let us hurry,” she said. “The sun will set shortly.”

They left quickly.

Chapter Seven

“Missing! What do you mean my Barbara is missing?” Gordon shouted. Wayne returned Gordon’s glare steadily.

“Exactly what I said, Captain Gordon. Lady Barbara has not been seen by any of the household staff since mid-morn today. When is the last time you spoke with her?”

“A little before mid-morn,” Gordon answered, shaking his head. “I was too busy to notice the exact angle of the sun. She approached me with this nonsense about accompanying us into battle. I told her to run along, and help Alfred set up the hospital.”

Wayne’s attention pricked suddenly when Gordon mentioned that Barbara wanted to join the frontline troops.

“Captain, I do not wish to cause undue alarm, but if Lady Barbara’s intention was to join the troop, it’s possible that she might have found a way to succeed.” Gordon shook his head, not understanding.

“The household staff who saw her this morning, said that she was in the corridor immediately outside Richard’s apartments. They didn’t think anything of it at the time, but they said that she was busy dusting the portraits in the hallway.”

Gordon shrugged his shoulders. “So? Barbara is not adverse to doing common household chores.”

“No, but those portraits were dusted just yesterday.” Gordon’s eyes widened. “Furthermore, Alfred went into Richard’s chambers to see if there was any equipment or clothing that Richard could use while he’s on campaign. Alfred had intended on packing some to send him when the castle garrison departs. There were several items of clothing missing . . . Items that Alfred knows Richard didn’t take with him, because Alfred helped him pack earlier!”

Gordon felt his shoulders sagging.

“Lord Wayne, you don’t think that Barbara might’ve left already? Dressed in men’s clothing?”

“I’m only saying that it is a distinct possibility,” Wayne replied.

As King Orrin’s forces moved north, the remainder of Castle Wayne’s garrison prepared rapidly for deployment. Captain Gordon recruited every able-bodied man in the district capable of wielding a weapon. Volunteers from throughout the area were reporting hourly. Lord Wayne was a popular master who oversaw his keep both fairly and compassionately. There was many a family who had managed to make it through hard times because he always evenly distributed food and other necessary items during times of need.

Refugees were streaming through the castle gates in increasing numbers. Most stopped just long enough to rest and beg for supplies before they continued on their journey south to the Capital City of Metropolis. Many had abandoned their homes with little more than their clothes on their backs. They told tales of the wholesale slaughter of entire villages, of burning, and pillaging. However, the worst tales involved the disappearances of the children. Stories were being circulated like wildfire of children being rounded up like cattle and being taken for whatever evil necromancy Mordant had devised.

Furthermore, word had spread of the razing of Graetheson lands. Young Sir Richard was extremely popular amongst the locals; he was openly friendly, and many were the times that he had personally helped out in the fields during haying season. And even though he could have his pick of any young maiden in the district, he never forced his attentions on any of them, much to the maids’ chagrin but to their parents’ gratitude. He was a true gentleman, who treated all with equal dignity . . .

“We ride day after the morrow before first light,” Wayne said. He and Selina stood outside on his balcony under a canopy of stars. “I’m leading the advance party . . . archers, foot soldiers, mounted knights . . . the remainder of the garrison. Captain Gordon will follow with the rear echelon in another two days. He hates it, of course, but I need someone strong enough to control all of the noncombatants who will be accompanying us.”

“Noncombatants?” Selina asked.

“Aye, Lady,” Wayne said sighing. “Unfortunately, a full-scale war cannot be fought with only trumpets and swords. For every soldier I have in battle, my marshals estimate at least four noncombatants are required to support his every need: blacksmiths, cooks, physicians, priests . . . the list is endless. Also, the new recruits need to be trained in a very short period. Gordon is the only person in whom I would entrust the lives of so many farmers and tradesmen. He will ensure that each man is given the ability to survive at least the first few minutes of battle. After that, it’s up to God and each man’s own desire to live to see the next sunrise!”

He paused, smiling. “Gordon will lead his raw troops a bit slower in order to train them as they march. I envy them not. He is as enraged as a mountain lion in not accompanying the lead party! I’m afraid that he will definitely make his feelings known to our new soldiers during their training sessions!”

Selina’s eyes smiled at the image of Gordon terrorizing the trainees. Then changing the conversation, she asked worriedly, “Any news of the Lady Barbara?” Wayne shook his head. His hands grasped the balcony’s railing. Selina saw his shoulder muscles bunching under his brocaded overcoat. Wayne stared out upon the dark waters of the North Sea for so long that Selina wondered if he’d dismissed her. Finally, he spoke in his normal low tones without turning.

“I’ve known Captain Gordon all of my life. He was my father’s best friend . . . they served under King Orrin’s father together during that trouble with the Normans at Hastings. He was the younger son of a younger son; therefore, he stood to not inherit any of his family’s holdings, except for a very old, very proud name. He swore his fealty to my father, and when I became Lord Wayne, he swore fealty to me. I in turn promised him and his a home for perpetuity on Wayne holdings.”

Wayne turned to face Selina, an excited look on his face.

“Richard and I found a small enclosed valley not a half day’s ride from here . . . with the prettiest fresh water stream running through it . . . It has this tiny water fall that empties into a small pond, which we can stock of course.” He paused embarrassed. “I’m sorry; forgive me, Lady. I ramble.”

“No, please,” she protested. “Tell me more!” Wayne’s eyes smiled at her.

“Gordon will never retire of his own accord, but Richard and I figured that if I present the lands to him this midsummer, as a token of my gratitude for loyal service and friendship, that perhaps we can entice the old codger to finally hang up his spurs. I can offer the services of my master architect and master builder to help him erect a suitable home. My intention was to make him feel guilty that Barbara didn’t have a home of her own . . . I’m afraid that Richard has put a slight damper on that excuse!”

“Oh, Bruce, I was so happy for the both of them. They looked so ecstatic the morn Richard rode off. Of course, they were saddened that he was leaving, but they seemed so much in love! What a well-made match!”

“Aye, and I’m afraid that neither Gordon nor I can take credit for it. I have always thought of them as brother and sister. So has Gordon. I had worried that Richard would have to go to the Royal Court in Metropolis in order to find a suitable match, but we had our own home grown one all along. We just had to wait for the two parties in question to grow up sufficiently to stop seeing each other as annoying siblings.”

Selina laughed quietly at this last.

“I sent a messenger on along to Richard to give him the news of her disappearance, he added. “I asked him to keep an eye out for her. I can do naught else. Her personal mount is still in the stable where she’d just bedded him down. Her clothing has been left untouched. We aren’t missing any horses . . . there is nothing that can provide a clue as to which direction she might have gone. If I didn’t know better, Lady, I’d swear that Barbara Gordon has fallen off the face of the earth!”

“My lord, you don’t think that perhaps she might have met up with some sort of foul play? I mean, perhaps she did intend to join the troop on its march to battle, but what is to say that she succeeded? We are in agreement that she and Richard are a well-made match. What if she has been taken in order to gain influence over Richard?” Bruce stared at her long and hard.

“What if, indeed?”

“We would never arrive in time to reinforce King Orrin even if we deployed today!” Sir Clark Kent was a busy man and he did not have the time to bandy words with Wallace. He had to ready the garrison and the good citizens of Metropolis to defend the Capital City. The adopted son of the younger son of the Duke of Kent, Clark was Orrin’s premier Field Marshal and one of the finest generals on the staff.

The story went that Sir Jonathon Kent and his lovely wife, Lady Martha, who had been childless for over fifteen years of marriage, discovered a baby left in a picnic basket one morning. The cries of the helpless babe pierced Lady Martha’s heart, and by the time she’d lifted the child into her arms, she was won over. When the baby grasped Sir Jonathon’s index finger with his tiny hand, the grizzled soldier’s heart also melted.

Clark’s military training started early. By the time he was one and twenty he had gained the reputation of being not only a fierce and honorable warrior, but also a brilliant strategist whose leadership inspired his soldiers to victory after victory. Unfortunately, his military mind was currently stumped.

Wallace looked outraged at Clark’s reply to his message from their Majesties.

“If only we could fly,” Clark sighed. “But we might as well wish for the moon!”

“We do not have time for idle speculation, Sir Clark,” Wallace said in anger. “We need to start preparations for an immediate troop movement to the north. My best friends, my uncle . . . our king and queen are all depending on us! We cannot let them face Mordant without their full forces!”

“And what if we left in the next ten minutes? What good would we accomplish? We would be leading the entire garrison to their deaths!” Clark shook his head. “Nay, Sir Wallace . . . as much as it pains me to say this, we must prepare to defend the city. Otherwise, all will be lost.”

Wallace looked at Clark stunned by what he had said. Was he right? Did they indeed have no choice? Did he ride this distance just to end up abandoning his loved ones? He thought of his Uncle Barry and Aunt Iris. They’d raised him since he was a mere lad. He barely remembered his own parents, but he’d never missed them. He couldn’t have wished for a kinder, more loving mother and father than his aunt and uncle. And was this how he was paying them back for their many kindnesses?

No! He would not abandon the battle! He would not abandon his friends and family! There had to be a way . . . something they were overlooking!

“But wait!” Wallace suddenly exclaimed. “Sir Clark, what you just said about flying . . !”

Clark shook his head impatiently. “What of it? We cannot fly . . .”

“Perhaps not, Sir Clark,” Wallace replied. “But then again, perhaps we can!” He looked at Clark with hope dawning in his eyes. “Let us away. I have an idea.”

“What? What idea do you have, Sir Wallace?” Clark asked as they rushed out of his headquarters.

“Wings, Sir Clark . . . Wings.”

Barbara felt herself being roughly pulled and pushed in different directions. She was blindfolded and gagged; she’d been turned round so many times that her sense of direction had been completely thrown off. Furthermore, her captors never said anything, so she’d no idea if either Rapier or Bess were still there. She heard doors being opened and slammed shut behind her; keys turning, doors unlocking, bolts being thrown back and replaced.

Finally, her bound hands were untied, and she was shoved unceremoniously into a room. She immediately heard the bolt being thrown in place. Barbara spun around, removing the blindfold and gag, and then stopped. Her mouth hung open in shock.

She was a small cell, about twenty feet by fifteen feet, which was already occupied with approximately ten children. They stared at each other in mutual astonishment. Barbara noted that they ran in age from about three to twelve, but couldn’t be certain. A small child, hardly more than a toddler, was huddled in an older girl’s arms, his thumb in his mouth. To Barbara’s amazement he suddenly held his chubby arms out to her asking to be picked up.

Barbara immediately bent down and lifted him into her arms. He threw his arms around her neck and planted a big, wet kiss on her ear. Barbara laughed softly. He generously offered her his thumb. Barbara graciously turned down the offer with a slight shake of her head and a gentle smile.

“And what might your name be, cherub?” she asked.

“Timmy.”

“Well, Timmy, I’m honored to make your acquaintance. How old are you, Timmy?” she asked.

Timmy seriously considered the question, then solemnly held out one finger. On further thought, he added a second.

“Two years old?” Barbara said. “My, you’re almost old enough to become a page in your master’s household!” Timmy smiled brightly, then quite unselfconsciously settled his head on Barbara’s shoulder and went promptly to sleep. “I never suspected it could be this simple,” she said bemusedly to no one in particular.

“It normally isn’t, milady.” Barbara looked over to where the older girl still sat in the corner on the filthy matting that covered the stone floor. Barbara walked over to her and slowly sat down next to her. “But the wee one is such an angelic babe. I’ve known him since he was born.” She looked sadly away. “Master and Mistress Drake were . . . ” she couldn’t finish. “I haven’t had the heart to tell him, poor babe. I’m not certain he’d understand anyway.”

“What happened?” Barbara asked. “Why are all of you children here? I don’t understand. Where are we?”

“As to why we’re here . . . only time will tell. As to where we are . . . we are in Hell, milady, in what was once Melrose Abbey. And as to what happened” the girl’s eyes reflected the horrors that she’d witnessed. “Our homes were burned and pillaged by the Dark Legions. As the sun was going down . . . as the men were just returning home from a full day’s toil in the fields . . . our small farming village was suddenly overrun by . . . creatures who by right should dwell only in nightmares!”

She turned a tear-streaked face to Barbara.

“But they’re real lady! The hobgoblins that exist only in stories meant to frighten children . . . they exist in this realm!” She broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. When it finally passed, she continued quietly.

“I’d walked over to the Drakes’ cottage to borrow a small measure of flour from the Mistress. She was a kind lady and a goodly neighbor, always ready to share with those who had less. I’d watched young Timmy for her many a time when she had to help Master Drake in the fields.”

She paused; the haunted look returned.

“She told me to help myself; so, I went down to the larder. I knew where the flour was kept as I’d been there oftentimes for the same reason. Timmy begged me to take him down with me, so I picked him up and we both went down. The attack on the village happened while we were in the larder. Mistress Drake called to me to stay put, then shut the trapdoor. I managed to keep Timmy quiet for several hours. Poor babe was terribly frightened; so was I.”

She stopped and breathed a deep sigh.

“Finally, I could stand it no longer, so I took a chance and emerged to investigate. They were swarming all over the village, Lady! It was as if Cerberus himself had thrown open the gates of Hell! Needless to say, we were captured and placed in a compound with other children . . . Children from the surrounding valleys and canyons. Most I didn’t know; some I’d met only briefly during market day. There were many more of us when we were first thrown in here . . . each day a few have been taken away. We’ve never seen them again. I’ve been praying that they take Timmy and me together . . . I could not bear it knowing that he’d been left alone. But now that you’re here, lady . . . the wee one seems taken by you; perhaps you could watch o’er him should I be taken?”

The girl looked away, then began crying again. Barbara didn’t know what to say that could be comforting. The young girl tried to talk through her sobs, however.

“The other members of our village . . . the adults, young maidens and young men . . . my mother and father, Timmy’s parents . . . everyone was put to the sword. Then their lifeless bodies and the entire village were put to the torch.” She looked up at Barbara. Her sad eyes full of despair. “I know not why they were killed while we were allowed to live. But I’m sure that this oversight will soon be corrected.”

Barbara listened stunned by the poor girl’s tale.

“I cannot begin to imagine a more horrific nightmare than what you’ve lived through, child.” She suddenly remembered her manners. “Forgive me! I do not even know your name. I’m Barbara Gordon, daughter of Captain Sir James Gordon, Captain of the Guard at Castle Wayne.”

“I am honored, Lady Barbara. I am Meghan MacLeod. My father was one of the last of our clan. Since the Mage Wars, the MacLeods have been few in number, and fewer still with each passing generation that disappears into the distaff line. I was an only child . . . my sole male cousin was killed along with the adults. I am afraid that I may now truly be the last of the proud Clan MacLeod.”

Meghan paused and looked curiously at Barbara. “I don’t understand why any of us are here, of course, but I know that most of us came from the Trossachs, the foothills that border the Caledonian Lowlands from the Highlands and thus the Wastelands further to the north. If you are of Clan Gordon, you are not a Highlander. Why have you been brought here?”

Barbara shook her head and looked away.

“That, Meghan is an excellent question, one whose answer I sorely fear.”

“There you are, Sir Clark,” Wallace said pointing, “your wings!” Clark looked out upon the royal fleet lying proudly at anchor in Metropolis Harbor. “We load the garrison . . . lock, stock, and horses . . . and sail north. The last I heard, our fleet had some of the fastest sailing vessels on the high seas!”

Clark looked out upon the corsairs, frigates, cruisers, brigantines, and destroyers. The Royal Fleet’s finest ships of the line: the _Prince of Wales_, the _Yorktown_, the _Gotham Town_, and the Royal Flagship, _ HMS Manhunter_ . . . there were many more . . . proud names from the Kingdom of Avalon’s long, august history. Clark stood on the busy loading dock surveying the endless activity and nodded thoughtfully.

The famous White Cliffs overlooking the harbor stood as a silent sentinel to Avalon’s maritime history. When Wallace first caught sight of them, he stood awestruck before their unsullied beauty. If anything symbolized the inner purity of Avalon’s soul it was the very foundation of immaculate whiteness upon which the country was built.

Clark turned to Wallace a smile touching his clear blue eyes. The wind ruffled his dark hair, whipping a forelock that refused to remain in place across his brow. His red cape with his family’s proud crest in the form of a stylized “S” billowed in the crisp sea breeze. The words “For Truth and Justice” were embroidered in a half-circle above the “S.”

“Sir Wallace, any time you’re ready to leave the service of Lord Wayne and join a real fighting outfit, you’re welcome on my staff. I’ll assemble the Admiralty within the candlemark . . . I’m about to commandeer Lord Admiral Sir John Jones’ Navy. The old blowhard will wail and moan, but in end he’ll love the thought of sailing into battle! Good work, lad. You’ve done your family proud today!”

Wallace felt himself grow an inch taller under the glowing praise. No wonder Sir Clark was so beloved by his soldiers. He just inspired pride in each of them and a fierce desire to do their best for him. Uncle Barry told him of the man’s immense gift to radiate confidence and hope. Wallace had not fully understood what his uncle meant until this moment.

“We sail north, lad. I hope you brought your sea legs with you.” Clark gave a hearty laugh, and slapping Wallace between the shoulders, urged him to follow him. “Come, let us find that old sea pirate and tell him he’s about to earn his wages.”

Chapter Eight “Missing? But how? I don’t understand, cousin!” Princess Donna looked worriedly at Richard. She was dressed in her full battle armor, the picture of an Amazon-warrior princess, the Royal Golden Eagle holding a trident emblazoned on her shield.

“I don’t understand myself, Donna,” Richard replied shaking his head. He gestured with a small sheaf of rolled parchment that he held in his hand. “Bruce says that she was last seen at mid-morn the day he wrote this note. That was two days ago! Apparently she’d been arguing with Captain Gordon about accompanying the troop here to battle. Now, they have discovered several articles of clothing missing from my wardrobe.”

“Richard, you don’t think that she’d–?”

“That she’d dress up in my trousers and try to sneak into our compound as a man?” Richard interrupted. “Barbara Gordon? Headstrong, impossible, impetuous Barbara Gordon? My Barbara? I’m only surprised she didn’t ride point when the Honor Guard went down to Fountain’s Abbey!”

“You said yourself that she’s an accomplished swordswoman, Richard. Her father’s daughter. Perhaps Captain Gordon should have allowed her to march with them.”

“Your highness, Barbara is an accomplished swordswoman, but she is no warrior. She’d never last in a real battle where men are trying to perpetuate the most violent means of hurt and death on each other. Our mothers were warrior-born . . . such a calling is in our blood. You have a sworn duty to your people to defend the realm, as does Prince Garth, as do your mother and father. For should Avalon fall to Mordant’s Forces of Darkness, there will be no kingdom to rule over, just the charred remains of what was once the jewel of the North Sea.” Richard gazed intently at his royal cousin.

“The good citizens of Avalon have no such God-given duty. Their task must be to survive this coming cataclysm; whether to live in slavery or freedom is not ours to say. But to survive into the next millennium they must. For even though we may fall in battle, Mankind must live on! Perhaps there will be another Emerald Warrior to take up the battle cry, For freedom! For God and King! For Avalon!.” He paused, then added bitterly, “Avalon could certainly use a so- called savior who at least knows what the devil he’s doing! Whatever our personal fate may be in battle, Princess, our people must survive to fight another day!”

“Nay, Richard! You are wrong! The evil that Mordant spreads throughout the realm and possibly the world . . . it is the God-given duty of each of us to stop its growing expansion. From the lowliest serfs who toil for their daily bread, to the highest nobles in the land, for should Mordant be allowed to gain foothold in Avalon, then surely a second time of darkness will soon descend upon this earth. He returns weaker than before . . . but he makes blood sacrifice of our very young, for only the blood of the pure and untainted has the power to increase his fearsome magic! If we do not stop his latest incursion into our realm of light, then may God have mercy on us all, for Mankind is surely doomed to a life of eternal damnation!”

Richard stood tall, arms crossed, his profile hard and still; he was immediately outside the open tent flaps to his field quarters. He gazed out into the sunset over the western sky. It almost seemed as if the very sky was aflame with the sweeping conflagration of war. It’s coming soon, he thought. The end to all creation . . . what’s left of humanity will once again be cast out of paradise, forced to scrabble like wild animals. Everything we have built . . . the sum total of all human knowledge will be lost in the Dark Ages close at hand.

“NO!!” He swore aloud, his gloved fist raised to the fires in the sky. “We will defend Avalon to our last dying gasp . . . men, women, children!” Donna came up behind him, and gently placed her hand on his bulging shoulders. “And should we fail today, we will fall back and live to fight another day . . . we will never surrender our island!” Sir Richard raised his voice so that it carried defiantly proud across the compound. Cooks, leatherworkers, smiths, and nobles lifted their eyes to the Emerald Warrior. “For Freedom . . ! For God and King. . ! For . . . AVALON!”

His shouts were met with resounding cries and cheers from the others throughout the camp: “For FREEDOM . . ! For GOD and KING . . ! For . . . AVALON!!!”

“We’ve already sent word to King Orrin of our departure and estimated arrival dates off the coastal waters of Abb’s Head. We disembark there then force march inland to Dumfrieshire where we will reinforce his Majesty’s ground forces.” Clark was wrapping up his operations briefing to the combined general staff and admiralty. “We’ve also sent a courier to the Prince of Wales’ own fusiliers and archers garrisoned in Cardiff to march or sail North and meet up with the main body at soonest possible speed. God knows we need every man who is currently on the active roster.”

Clark lay down the long pointer he had been using. His headquarters’ conference table was strewn with campaign and nautical maps, calipers, straight edges, writing quills, and what appeared to Wallace as an unnecessarily large amount of parchment. Wallace had never desired to work on a planning staff . . . too much paperwork. He preferred to be with the action. On the other hand, Richard at only eighteen years of age could show Clark and his staff a thing or two about tactics and planning.

However, Wallace had to admit that Clark’s brilliant operations order left nothing to chance. He planned for almost every contingency, to include alternate disembarkation points, and alternate routes to march to Dumfrieshire. He even ordered the Navy to begin the evacuation of civilians located along the eastern coast to Metropolis and to impress all merchant vessels for the possible evacuation of survivors to the mainland in Normandy should Avalon fall.

As the meeting broke up, Clark walked up to Wallace and invited him to dinner with his wife, Lady Lois.

“It would indeed be an honor, Sir Clark; however, I am already engaged for the evening. Please extend my regrets to your good Lady.”

“Nay, Wallace, there is no need for apology. Tonight is your last evening before we sail into what could be a terrible battle. ‘It’s best you spend your last few hours with someone who will make them memorable. I shall see you tomorrow at the loading docks! Fare thee well!”

“Good night, Sir Clark . . . I shall meet you at the loading docks tomorrow before the cock crows!” With that Wallace turned and went outside. There he found the temporary mount that Clark had loaned him. He quickly mounted and headed towards the outlying districts of the Capital City. After several minutes of riding through the quickly lengthening shadows, he came upon a familiar street and turned in. Wallace dismounted and tethered his horse to a white fence that bordered a tiny one-room cottage at the end of the street.

The delicious smells of home cooking wafted their way into his heart. Freyja could easily be the best cook he had ever met. Certainly better than his Aunt Iris, and quite possibly as good or better than Castle Wayne’s master chef. Taking a moment to just enjoy the peaceful solitude of the early evening residential street, Wallace felt himself relaxing after a long day of tense negotiations.

“Negotiations! More like petty jealousies!” he said disgustedly. And mostly on the part of the Admiralty. They’d been outraged at Clark’s effrontery in commandeering the Navy; however, the King’s orders were explicit: Clark was to move the remainder of the Metropolis garrison north. Clark translated this to read, “by any means available.” Lord Admiral Jones grudgingly agreed. There was no time for argument; they’d work out the logistics of Army to Navy compensation for services rendered at a later date.

“Should anyone survive to bill the Army,” Wallace said sardonically.

“Lord Wayne . . . Lord Wayne . . . a word, please!” Wayne looked up impatiently. He had been concentrating on his final preparations for departure. Alfred was anxiously trying to get his attention. Wayne immediately stopped what he was doing, and called one of the stable hands to continue saddling Nightstar. He’d moved up the garrison’s departure time; if they deployed now and force marched all night, then they’d meet up with the main body before sunset on the morrow.

“What is it, old friend? As you can see, you have caught me in the middle of something?” Wayne turned this last statement into a question. It was not like Alfred to interrupt him while he was so busily engaged.

“My apologies, milord,” Alfred said breathlessly. “But I had to speak to you about a most urgent matter . . . in private!” He immediately pulled Wayne out of the stables to the relative privacy of the noisy and chaotic parade grounds. “Milord, I was in Sir Richard’s quarters this morning . . . to tidy up, perhaps find whatever last minute articles I deemed that he might need while he’s on this extended campaign.” He stopped for breath.

Wayne looked at him patiently. If Alfred had something to say, he’d say it in his own good time.

“I was dusting his quarters, when on impulse I wondered if anyone had taken the time to clean under his bed. You know the young master . . . so untidy at times, leaving his riding boots under the bed, or bits and pieces of leather straps. At any rate, I bent down to inspect and I found . . . this!” Alfred held out a ruffled handkerchief made of fine linen delicately embroidered with the initials “JR.”

Wayne shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. It seemed an ordinary enough handkerchief, probably from some eager maiden who’d offered it to Richard as a token remembrance. “And . . ?”

“Sniff it, sir,” Alfred urged. As Wayne was about to breathe the slip of cloth’s scent, Alfred stayed his hand. “Carefully, sir!” Wayne raised a single eyebrow. Bringing the handkerchief carefully to his nostrils, he took a tentative sniff. His eyes immediately watered and he felt himself involuntarily gag. He started coughing uncontrollably.

“What in heaven’s name . . ? Are you trying to poison me, man?” Wayne asked gagging helplessly. Alfred took the handkerchief back from his lord.

“Before I came here, milord, I took it to Fra Haly . . . he is an expert in the apothecary’s arts as is the Lady Selina. They both identified the vile smell as a residue from a powerful sleeping potion. Most has been dispelled now, but as you can tell, it is still quite strong! Milord, this handkerchief suggests that Lady Barbara did not leave of her own free will, but rather that she was taken!”

“Alfred, we must find out to whom the initials ‘JR’ belong. You must investigate this yourself, Alfred . . . get Lady Selina to assist you. She is a clever and resourceful woman. Do not let Captain Gordon know about this, at least, not yet. I will leave you Sir Roy to help; I will let him know what goes. He is extremely fond of both Richard and Barbara . . . I know that he will gladly stay to find her.” He paused, laying his hand gently on his loyal friend’s shoulder. “I am sorry to leave you like this, old friend, but I must away to the north. I know you’ll do your best.”

Clasping each other’s hands, the two men bade one another farewell.

“God speed, milord!”

Images of Barbara pervade Richard’s dreams that night. Barbara’s flaming hair billowing gently in the breeze . . . Barbara’s head turning back towards him, a smile lighting her fair features. Barbara playing with the younger children, clasping their hands in a circle, chanting “Ring around the rosie . . . ” He recalls that Barbara has always loved the younger children, makes special time for them, and reads to them by the fireside hearth on the cold winter evenings.

He dreams of a particular evening when she reads from Master Chaucer’s _Canterbury Tales_. His parents are only two months gone, and although he’s been fully knighted, he still feels like a lonely lad of nine. He sits close to her, her arm around his shoulder, proximity to her bringing a warm feeling of comfort . . .

. . . The image begins to blur, to fragment . . . They are no longer sitting by the fireplace in the Great Circular Hall in Castle Wayne. Instead, he is sitting on her lap, held gently, protectively in her arms, his head resting on her bosom. He looks up to where her chin rests gently on the top of his head. He looks down . . . he is no longer a young man of eighteen years. He is . . . Richard surveys himself . . . he can’t be more than a mere toddler; in fact, he feels a decidedly uncomfortable dampness from the seat of his trousers.

“Oh, you poor, cherub . . . Here, Timmy, let us do something about that, why don’t we?” Barbara speaks lovingly to him, then lays him on his back and starts undressing him. Richard lies helplessly, unable to stop her ministrations. Another voice speaks above him.

“I have one last piece of cloth that should do the trick, milady.” A girl of about twelve comes into his line of vision. Her auburn hair is scraggly, as if it hasn’t been washed in ages. She smiles down at him. “Timmy-lad, we’ll have you good as new in just a blink.” She tickles his tummy, then playfully tweaks his nose and cheek.

Richard/Timmy hears himself gurgling happily. “May’n . . . Baw-bwa . . . love you . . . ” Richard/Timmy’s arms reach up eagerly for Barbara, who smiles and willingly lifts him into her arms.

“Lady Barbara, he’s so happy . . . and we are all doomed . . . oh, what is to become of us?” The girl lays her head on Barbara’s shoulder and openly weeps. Barbara gently sits Richard/Timmy on her lap and caresses the girl’s cheek.

“Now, none of that, Meghan. We must be strong for the others. We must have faith, too. Remember that all Mordant can do is take our corporeal selves, our souls belong to God. Should we meet our untimely deaths at his evil hands, we will only suffer for a short while. When we go to our Father, we will go to a place of unbridled beauty and peace . . .”

. . . The scene dissolves again. He finds himself standing outside the grounds of Melrose Abbey. He remembers the place from his childhood: his parents are laid to rest here.

“Why am I here?” he asks himself.

“He has desecrated your parents’ graves, Richard.” He spins around. Barbara stands before him, a small group of children huddled around her. She holds a babe of about two in her arms. He knows instinctively that this must be the boy, Timmy. He begins to walk tentatively towards her.

“Mordant has committed unspeakable atrocities on the very altar of God. The statuary of the saints and holy family has been destroyed; the crucifix of our savior has been vilely profaned. He commits these sacrileges in the very house of God where you were baptized, where your parents’ marriage was consecrated, and where they were laid to their eternal rest . . .”

He reaches out with his right hand, his fingertips lightly caressing her cheek. She closes her eyes at his touch; a lone tear begins to wend its way slowly to her chin. He gently wipes it off with his thumb and cups her face lovingly in his hand. Barbara opens her eyes, and sadly gazing into his, continues her tale as if without pause.

“. . . He commits these obscenities in the very house of God where countless generations of Graysons have been baptized, married, and buried. He mocks you, Richard . . . he goads you to come to him before you’re ready. The blasphemies are but a means to anger you. The children and myself are but a means to an end.” A soft green aura begins to surround her. “‘ It’s you he wants. Forget me . . . forget us . . . we go to a better place soon . . . take care, my love . . . ” She and the children slowly dissolve in the delicate green light.

“No wait! Barbara . . . you must have faith . . . you must! Remember that I love you . . . I love you . . !”

. . . His cries awoke him. He was sitting up in his camp cot, sweat streaming down his chest, his jet-black hair matted to his head in damp streaks. Had it been only a dream? It had seemed so real. His right hand was still moist from her tears! The Emerald Eye began radiating a green glow from where it hung around his neck. He looked down at it and grasped it in his trembling hands.

It began pulsating to the beat of his heart. The boy, Timmy, and the girl, Meghan . . . they had looked vaguely familiar as if from some half-remembered dream. Of course, his earlier dream-walk under the influence of the Emerald Eye, these were the same children he’d seen tortured and killed at the hands of Mordant’s evil minions.

Did this mean that they lived still? That Barbara was being held with them as a means to get to him? Well, if Mordant wanted him, then he’d get his wish! Richard immediately threw off his covers and jumped out of bed. He began dressing in the pre-dawn darkness. If Barbara was being held prisoner at Melrose Abbey, then he was going there to get her out!

Chapter Nine

“He’s at Melrose Abbey on the Tweed,” said Richard. His announcement was met with silence from Orrin’s close advisors. “Mordant’s forces are pillaging further to the south, laying waste to hundreds of acres of farmland, and committing wholesale slaughter of its living inhabitants. They’re following the Southern Upland Way that lies between the Rivers Tweed and Teviot. At this rate, Mordant’s forces will have a firm foothold in Dumfrieshire. However, these are little more than diversionary tactics, Your Majesty. He commits these atrocities to spite us. To goad us into attacking in a fit of frenzied anger, rather than coldly and calculatingly.”

He told King Orrin about his nocturnal Emerald Eye induced visions.

“We must contain him here, Your Majesty.” Using his pointer, Richard followed an imaginary east-west line on the wall-sized campaign map from Moffat to the Cheviot Hills. “Once he crosses from the Caledonian Lowlands into Avalon’s North Country, we have little chance of halting his advance. However, if we fight a holding action here, along the Cheviot Hills, we should draw his forces away from their current relentless southern advance.”

He paused to ensure the others were following his line of reasoning.

“Thus, we can make use of the Cheviot’s rugged terrain to mask our movements and slow his; this way we stand a chance of containing him long enough for Sir Clark’s reinforcements to reach us.” Looking over at Prince Garth, he added for his cousin’s benefit, “As well as the timely arrival of the Prince of Wales’ own crack archers and fusiliers. I understand that at the last tourney the infamous Welch archers actually hit the targets that were placed before them.”

“Aye, Sir Richard, ’twas a wonder to behold,” said Sir Oliver. “They actually aimed their arrows in the direction of the targets this year, rather than at the audience. ‘ It’s nothing more dangerous on this God’s green earth than to be standing behind a Welshman with a crossbow!”

The others in the room laughed, grateful for the short respite of levity. Prince Garth smiled easily. His personal Welch archers and fusiliers both had fearsome fighting records and shared a friendly rivalry with their sister units garrisoned in the Capital City.

“But worry not, Your Highness,” reassured Sir Oliver. “Once Sir Roy arrives, there will be no need for any more archers. Between my young protege and I, we can fire off more arrows more accurately than an entire battalion of archers! And still have time to come home to a good supper put out by the army’s finest mess sergeants!”

“Let us just hope that Mordant’s minions didn’t hear of Lord Wayne’s catching Sir Roy’s arrows,” Garth retorted good- naturedly. “I’d hate to see all of our bolts falling into the enemies’ hands and being thrown back at us!” Oliver turned beet-red at this reminder, but laughed in spite of himself at the prince’s pun.

As Richard briefed the assembled commanding officers and staff, Princess Donna worried about her cousin. He was acting like a man possessed. He’d been up since before dawn, awaking his officers and men for predawn drills. She’d observed him throughout the course of the day. There was only one word to describe Richard when he became like this: Driven. He was pushing his men to the point of exhaustion, but there was no one whom he pushed harder than he did himself.

Donna knew the cost to him of knowing where Barbara was being held while being unable to do anything about it. She knew that his first instincts had been to saddle Nightwing and abandon the main body to go in search of her. Certainly no one would have blamed him. But he hadn’t gone; instead he’d begun his relentless pursuit of perfection from his troops, for he had a God-given duty to defend and fight for his king and his people.

After all, he was the hereditary Chieftain of Clan Grayson, a very old, very proud family with direct ties to the royal line for several generations. During their current bloody campaign of terror, Mordant’s forces had already ruthlessly murdered countless members of his Clan. For a Grayson duty to his God, his country, his king, and his clan had to come before himself.

So Richard drilled, and he planned, and . . . Donna knew . . . he died a little each day.

The sounds of trumpets and cheers outside stopped any further attempt at a military briefing. Someone was coming! Then they heard the shouts: “Three cheers for Lord Wayne! Hip-hip . . . Hooray!”

“Bruce!” Richard’s eyes lit in genuine pleasure. Suddenly, he was no longer the serious Captain of the Honor Guard, but rather an eighteen year old boy about to be reunited with the man he thought of as his father. Forgetting royal protocol, he tossed his pointer at Prince Garth, who instinctively caught it, and ran out of the Royal briefing tent. Their Majesties exchanged indulgent smiles over their impetuous nephew.

“Bruce . . ! Bruce . . !” Richard waved excitedly. Lord Wayne immediately spotted his adopted son and dismounted instantly, handing his reins to a nearby retainer.

“Richard, lad! ‘ It’s good to see you again,” the two men clasped arms in a show of genuine affection. “You’re looking a mite fatigued, lad. Aren’t you getting enough sleep?” Richard shook his head, chagrinned.

“If not Alfred, then you . . . yes? Aye, I am a bit fatigued from lack of sleep and long hours. But, we’re at war and there is no helping it. I’ll catch up on my sleep once Mordant surrenders unconditionally to King Orrin!” He added this last with a sardonic smile. Wayne’s mouth quirked in a half-smile.

“Fair enough. But I’ll hold you to it, and that’s a promise!” he replied in mock threat.

The two looked up to see their Majesties waiting patiently by the tent flaps. Embarrassed by their public show of affection, Richard and Wayne both dropped their arms instantly, and as one assumed what Donna thought of as the “Mask.” This was their public persona, not quite haughty, not quite superior, but not particularly friendly. Therefore, their brief moment of undisguised openness with each other was a rare instant indeed, something not normally witnessed by others.

They walked to their sovereigns and Wayne immediately kneeled before them.

“Majesties, I bring the advance party of Castle Wayne’s garrison. The main body will meet us two days out. I hereby commend sovereignty of my men and materiel into your Royal hands.”

“Thank you, Lord Wayne,” King Orrin replied. “We are pleased that you have joined us today, as is a very dear and important member of our family and your household. Rise, Lord Wayne, and after you have settled in and refreshed yourself after your long march, we would be honored by your presence at our dinner table.”

“Thank you, Majesty, but the honor is mine.” The Royal Family turned as one to return to their quarters. Wayne and Richard waited respectfully until they’d turned the corner of the briefing tent. “Come, Richard, show me where I can take off these two-days worth of dusty clothes!”

“My tent’s this way, Bruce.” Looking around he asked curiously, “Isn’t Roy with you? I thought for certain that he’d come in the advance party.” Wayne looked away pensively for a few moments, then shrugging his shoulders he decided to tell his ward the truth.

“I shall tell you in the tent . . . in private.”

“Sergeant . . ! Sound General Quarters!” The Marine Sergeant and his three-man squad immediately began beating on their drums. Instantly, men began emerging from nooks, crannies, and hidden hatches. They were running and scurrying about the ship’s deck like mice, and climbing up seemingly impossible heights like monkeys.

Wallace knew that there was a method to the madness, but for the life of him, he couldn’t see any logical pattern to the frenzied activity. Then just as suddenly, the beating stopped, and with it absolute stillness settled over the ship’s company.

Up on the bridge, Captain Sir Perry White, Master of _HMS Manhunter_, Lord Admiral Jones’ flagship, began shouting orders; these in turn were immediately echoed by First Officer Leftenant Sir James Olsen, and to Wallace’s surprise, repeated at least twice more down the line before being carried out.

“Stand by to weigh anchor!”

“Stand by foc’sle!”

“Stand by mainsail!”

“Bring her about to a heading of . . . ”

The mainsail caught the crisp morning breeze and Wallace immediately felt the ship start moving. They were finally underway! The taskforce should reach their disembarkation point within two days!

“Signals . . . and my compliments to the Captains of the _Gotham Town_ and _Prince of Wales_! Last one to Abb’s Head buys the first round!”

Wallace smiled. It was nice to see that the navy had a sense of humor and camaraderie, too.

“Someone at Castle Wayne is responsible for her disappearance? And you didn’t stay to discover who?” Richard’s voice had risen in anger with each word. “How could you abandon the search? I want to know who the brigand is . . . and when I do, I’ll–!”

“You’ll what, Richard?” Wayne interrupted. “Run him through with your saber? No one would blame you, certainly. But finding the fiend who did this is not what’s important . . . Rescuing Barbara and the children is, however. We’ve got to find a way to get them out of Melrose Abbey.”

“Bruce, that’s all I’ve thought about since last night. I almost left my post today before sunrise!”

He suddenly cried out in agony. The personal pain he’d been fighting throughout the day finally taking its toll.

“Bruce, I could feel her. I could feel her terror . . . her sense of abandonment and loss. Last night . . . I–I touched her, Bruce! Somehow, I touched her! When I woke up, my hand was still wet from her tears. But that isn’t all . . . she held me, Bruce . . . I don’t know how to explain it, but I was that small boy in her arms . . . the one she called Timmy. She held me in her arms . . . ” he stopped and blushing furiously, he looked away embarrassed. “She even changed my nappies . . . I . . . well, Timmy had wet his.”

He turned anguished eyes to his guardian. “I was there, Bruce! I don’t know how, but I was there! I was Timmy!”

Richard turned away and walked to the open tent flap. He stood looking out as one by one the watch fires were lit on the perimeter. His posture was one of dejection as he held onto the tent pole that braced the entrance.

“I wanted to talk to her, to tell her it was me, but I couldn’t! I couldn’t make myself understood through Timmy. It’s as if I could think like me, but I couldn’t say or do anything a two-year old couldn’t. Does that make sense?”

Wayne had been studying his ward intently while he explained the incidents from the night before. Human possession? Was such a thing possible? Was it even desirable? But if it could help rescue Barbara, and it was obviously an ability that the Emerald Eye was giving him, then . . . so be it.

“I say we try to recreate whatever caused these Emerald visions to come to the fore last night. We must get you to go to sleep, but more importantly, we must guarantee that you dream about Barbara, which under the circumstances shouldn’t prove too difficult!” he added with a slight half-smile. Much to the Dark Knight’s amusement, Richard actually blushed at the statement.

“Fra Haly is well-versed in the healer’s arts, but as a servant of God, he is also schooled in some of the arcane arts.” At Richard’s startled look, he added quickly. “Oh, he’s no sorcerer, believe me, but as a member of the Jesuit Order he places a high value on knowledge for its own sake. I have seen him put a man to sleep who had long suffered from severe head seizures. Then by merely telling him that the headaches would be gone when he awoke, the terrible seizures did indeed disappear.”

“What are we waiting for, then?” Richard said excitedly. “Let us go and get the goodly father.”

At this moment, loud yells suddenly resounded throughout the compound. Shouts of “Halt!” “In the King’s Name . . !” could be heard echoing throughout the perimeter. Richard and Wayne rushed outside of the tent. Richard ran to where he’d tethered Nightwing, and not bothering to saddle him, he leaped on his back and took off in the direction of the shouts. He heard a lone horseman at full gallop, unmindful of the sentries’ shouted orders. Richard immediately turned Nightwing toward the sounds of the greatest disturbance.

As he approached, the shouts and sounds of chaos grew louder. Then rounding the far bend of the road leading to the encampment, Richard could see in the murky gloom afforded by the quarter moon the lone rider who was causing all of the trouble. All right, he obviously wasn’t stopping; therefore, Squire Robin was about to pull one of his favorite feats of horsemanship. As he and the other horseman approached each other at a full gallop, Richard suddenly stood on Nightwing’s back. Balancing himself perfectly, man and horse looked like a single creature. As they passed, Richard flew off of Nightwing and threw himself upon the other rider.

Both men fell, and rolled several times before coming to a halt. Richard recovered instantly and drawing his sword, approached his opponent cautiously.

“Do you stand down?” he asked. When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Richard walked closer to his prisoner. This time he placed the blade of the sword none too gently on the man’s shoulder, caressing his throat with the cutting edge. Richard repeated his question. “Do you stand down?”

A gloved hand came up cautiously, indicating surrender. As Richard made to remove his sword from the man’s shoulder, the meek prisoner suddenly exploded into unexpected action. He grabbed Richard’s sword by the blade, and unmindful of its razor-sharp edge, pulled it out of Richard’s hand and sent it flying about twenty feet away!

“Didn’t Gordon teach you any better?” The prisoner suddenly turned round and Richard finally saw whom he had been about to fight: Sir Roy Harper! The redheaded knight smiled broadly at his friend. Shocked at first, then annoyed at being caught off guard, then genuinely pleased to see his friend again, Richard relented and offered Roy a hand up.

“Roy! What brings you here in such a hurry?” Then realizing that Mordant’s legions could have found a way to bypass Orrin’s forces he asked worriedly, “No news to report of Mordant’s movements? Castle Wayne is not danger, is it?”

Roy’s easy countenance turned serious for a moment. “Nay, Richard. I bring news, but not of that. Castle Wayne still stands . . . and to the best of my knowledge, Mordant’s legions have still not crossed from the Caledonian Lowlands into Avalon.” Richard nodded relieved. “But the news I bring . . . Richard, it is about Barbara. Have you been apprised about the manner of her disappearance?”

“Aye, Bruce just informed me that she’d been kidnapped, but that we didn’t know who the villain was who did this.”

“We’ve found the villain, Richard. That’s why I’m here . . . I must get to their Majesties immediately. Their lives may be in danger.” Richard didn’t wait any further. He whistled sharply for Nightwing, who instantly came cantering up to his master. Richard quickly mounted, then reaching a hand down for Roy pulled him bodily up behind him.

“Let’s go, Nightwing . . !” Richard’s noble steed immediately broke into a full gallop; he didn’t break his stride until his master gently pulled back on his mane. “Whoa, boy, whoa.” Both Richard and Roy dismounted outside the Royal field quarters. Sir Oliver and Sir Barry, personal champions to the King and Queen were sitting outside the tent exchanging war stories before the disturbance. Now, their twin golden heads glinting in the dim light, they stood at full guard position, ready to defend their sovereigns.

“Roy!” Oliver called out, smiling through his roguish beard with genuine pleasure at seeing his ward again. Noting the younger man’s grim look, he instantly became all business. “Bring you tidings for their Majesties, Sir Roy?”

“Aye, Sir Oliver,” Roy nodded. “I bring tidings of foul deeds . . . of a traitor among us.” Oliver’s eyes widened, then he nodded grimly.

“Wait here.” He entered the tent, then emerged a few minutes later. By this time Wayne also stood outside the tent next to Richard. “Inside . . . everyone.”

As he entered the Royal field quarters, Roy suddenly felt awkward. He looked over to where Princess Donna stood looking immaculately beautiful in her light mail. As always close proximity to the Princess Royal took his breath away. How old had she turned on her last birthday? Seventeen years? As if he could ever forget: seventeen years, three months, and ten days. Today he’d been in love with Princess Donna for seventeen years, three months, and ten days.

The Princess Royal greeted Roy with a warm smile of welcome that succeeded in making his knees water. He had to force himself to turn his eyes from her. He had a duty to perform. He walked solemnly to his sovereigns and kneeled before them. “Majesties, I bring tidings of a traitor amongst us.”

“Stand, Sir Roy, and tell us of these terrible news,” Diana said imperiously. Roy nodded gratefully and stood at attention before their Majesties.

“Lord Wayne commanded me to discover who might have kidnapped the Lady Barbara from the very bosom of Castle Wayne. The only clue we had to her disappearance was this . . . ” he pulled out the embroidered handkerchief. “It is saturated with a powerful sleeping potion and was used undoubtedly to render Lady Barbara unconscious. Please handle it with due caution, sire!” he suddenly warned.

Orrin raised a single eyebrow in surprise, but he handled it a bit more gingerly nevertheless.

“As you can see, sire, the initials JR are embroidered on the corner of the material. We surmised that the initials belonged to whoever had kidnapped Lady Barbara, but by the same token, whoever kidnapped her could have simply stolen a handkerchief from someone to cast blame and suspicion on another. Therefore, we concentrated on finding who might have had access to the sleeping potion. It was proving a much more daunting task than anticipated, for everyone who might’ve had access also had a reason for keeping the potion on hand.” Roy shook his head in remembered frustration.

“Finally, I had no choice but to authorize a complete search of the castle . . . its outbuildings . . . everything. If the previous undertaking seemed full of impossibilities, this new endeavor seemed even more so. But with Alfred and Lady Selina to render assistance, who could fail? With their help we were able to organize a thorough search using only those personnel whom we felt we could personally trust. For two days and nights we searched, nonstop. I don’t know how we did it, without the rest of the staff getting wind of our actions, but we succeeded.” He smiled triumphantly.

“Luck was purely on our side, Majesties, because on the second day we discovered a small canister of this sleeping powder in the shared quarters of the junior serving girls. It was well hidden, but Alfred is a tenacious old dog. He’s the one who found it . . . in the wardrobe trunk of your lady friend, Richard . . . she of the inviting warm brown eyes . . . Bess!” His smile turned ugly. “When confronted with the canister and the handkerchief, those warm brown eyes became as hard and cold as any serpent’s eyes I’ve ever encountered!”

“Congratulations on a job well, done, Roy!” Richard said. “But, you came riding here as if the culprit hadn’t been found yet, or at least, that he or she was still free to commit further mischief.”

“And you’d be correct in your assessment, Richard, for Bess had an accomplice. And similar to her own carelessness in keeping such damning evidence, her partner did the same . . . though mayhap his actions were even more foolish, for he used his own handkerchief which bore his own initials: JR . . . Jack Rapier!”

“What?” “You can’t be serious!” “Preposterous! I’ve known Jack Rapier since we were children . . !” This last statement was uttered by the King, himself. “His father was my father’s personal retainer . . . his family has been in our household for almost three generations!”

Richard didn’t wait for the discussion to end. He immediately left the tent and went in search of Rapier. He quickly found him joking quietly with two other clerks.

“Master Rapier!” Richard called, loudly enough to be heard by anyone within a fifty-yard radius. “Prepare to defend yourself, you traitor!” Rapier looked up in shock. He hadn’t expected this, at least, not yet; he’d just arrived. He hadn’t had the time to bring his plan to full fruition. Recovering his usual aplomb, he held his hands out to indicate he was weaponless.

“Sir Richard, you wouldn’t attack an unarmed man,” he said. “I’m no swordsman . . . it would hardly be a fair duel.”

“Did you give Lady Barbara a fair chance? Or did you enjoy overpowering one lone girl and taking her from the people who love her? Is that it, Rapier? Do you like to hurt women and children . . ? Those who are incapable of defending themselves?”

By now they had a circle of curious onlookers, soldiers who were growing angrier by the minute once realization dawned that Rapier was the villain who’d kidnapped Lady Barbara Gordon and turned her over to Mordant.

“Who were you planning on next? Princess Donna? Prince Garth? I think you’d find them each a formidable opponent! Or perhaps assassination was more in line with your plans . . . That’s it, isn’t it? You’d planned on assassinating one or both of their Majesties. Maybe the entire Royal family?” Rapier was slowly backing up, shaking his head in weak denial.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sir Richard. You’re still overcome with grief over the loss of your betrothed, but I assure you, that I had nothing to do with it! I have been framed by those who would seek vengeance upon me for imagined past wrongs!”

“I won’t even dignify your cowardly whimpering with a reply. Prepare to defend yourself, you miserable dog, or die where you stand!” He unsheathed his sword. “En garde!” Sir Richard’s young, proud stance bespoke of righteous anger, an avenging angel bent on vengeance.

Rapier began blubbering helplessly. He fell on his knees and begged to be spared. Tears fell unashamedly down his face. He clasped his hands in front and begged in loud wracked-filled sobs. He began crawling on his hands and knees towards Richard, sobbing helplessly like a small, frightened child.

Richard’s hard, icy-blue eyes were a terrible sight to behold. Later, those who’d stood nearest to him said that they actually saw them begin to glow an unearthly green. Still, others claimed that a harsh emerald aura began to surround him, a green-hued mantle of which one could just catch a glimpse out of the corner of the eye. There . . . yet not there.

Then, just as suddenly, Richard’s hard demeanor began to soften. Slowly, the emerald glow that somehow seemed to permeate from him began to dissipate . . . within an eye blink, Sir Richard Lord Grayson, hereditary Chieftain of Clan Grayson, Dumfrieshire and Strathclyde had been transformed back to his normally mild-natured, much too serious self. He blinked his eyes in confusion.

He had been about to run this man through. He knew it . . . he could still feel the power emanating from within . . . a terrible power urging him to take his revenge. It was what he’d wanted wasn’t it? The voice that had spoken to him during his Emerald Eye-induced visions had been ruthless. Urging him to kill . . . to let go of his baser instincts. Richard had almost done so, but something inside him stopped him. Something that told him that although Rapier deserved it, it wasn’t Richard’s place to carry out his execution.

He couldn’t be sure, but Richard was sure that the intelligence behind the voice had smiled in satisfaction. If this had been a test, it appeared that he had somehow passed it. He looked down at Rapier, curled in a fetal position, and could only feel disgust at himself and what he’d almost done. He resheathed his sword.

King Orrin stepped forward and faced the man who’d been his childhood friend.

“Why, Rapier? You and I were once playmates . . . friends.” Rapier exploded into a helpless fit of giggles.

“Playmates . . ? Friends . . ? You and I . . ?” He struggled to get the words out between the hysterical laughter. Sir Oliver stepped forward in fit of fury over the knave’s insult to his King.

“I’ll stay your tongue, sirrah!” he cried, going for his saber. Orrin stayed his hand.

“Nay, Sir Oliver,” the King commanded quietly. “Let the man speak.”

Rapier finally quieted down and spoke with a semblance of control. He nodded in mock agreement with Orrin.

“Aye, Sir Oliver . . . Let the man speak. Let me speak!” he cried bitterly. “Aye, Your Majesty . . . your most humble, most gracious, most puissant Majesty . . . I am a man . . ! A plain, ordinary man . . . with no title, no lands, no family . . . nothing!” He quieted down, taking in deep breaths, building the strength to continue. “Playmates . . !” he spat out. “Friends . . ?” He laughed again, bitterly this time.

“My father used to make much of the fact that you and I were born but a few days apart. But because of an accident of birth, you were the Crown Prince and heir to the throne of Avalon, while I was the son of a lowly retainer in your father’s brother’s household.” He sat back on his haunches, remembering his dismal childhood.

“Your most gracious father the King asked his loving brother, the Duke of Yorkshire, if there were any suitable children in his household who might provide amusement for the young Crown Prince . . . who was lonely because he had no children his own age with whom to play. So my father and I came to court . . . Father as retainer in the King’s household, and I . . . well, I to be your playmate, Sire.” Rapier paused as if forgetting where he was.

“Each morning and night, Father admonished me to remember this or that . . . Jack, remember to never eat before young Prince Orrin has taken the first bite. Always allow Prince Orrin to choose the games you play, even if you want to play something else. Always let Prince Orrin win . . . Always agree . . . Always smile . . . Never forget to thank him for the privilege and honor of being allowed to play with him . . . ” Rapier stopped out of breath. He shook his fist at Orrin bitterly.

“I wasn’t your playmate, Sire; I was your play-thing! A mere toy you used, then discarded when you grew up! Friends?! I was nothing to you . . ! I was born into a nothing family and I grew up to be a nothing . . . a nobody! Well, Lord Mordant promised me that he’d make me a somebody . . . a Crown Prince in his new realm!” Rapier stood straight in proud triumph, his arms outstretched to all. Slowly, he lowered them to his sides. “All I had to do . . . was give up my soul . . . What did it matter, Your Majesty? My soul died a long time ago.”

No one said anything for a long moment. Finally, the King spoke. “Sir Oliver, have this man put in chains by Crown’s Order, for the kidnapping of Lady Barbara Gordon, most high treason against the people of Avalon, and for crimes most heinous against all of humanity.” Orrin looked at Rapier as he ordered his arrest.

“Mayhap a gross wrong was visited upon you unwittingly by Ourselves and Our family . . . for that We express Our deepest regret, for We never intended such hurt. However, We cannot forgive nor overlook the great personal harm that your vengeful actions have brought upon an innocent girl and several of Our youngest subjects, nor the horrors which your aiding and abetting of the evil Necromancer Mordant has released upon Avalon . . . Master Jack Rapier, as your sovereign King by Divine Right and Temporal, We condemn you to death for the numerous crimes that have already been stated. The execution will be carried out at midwatch on the morrow, before the Army marches.” King Orrin paused. “Remove this traitor from Our sight.”

Long after Rapier was hauled away, weeping helplessly, Richard remained, head bowed. After a seeming eternity, he felt a warm and comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Well done, Richard,” Wayne said quietly. Richard felt a surge of pride course through him. Not daring to look at each other, the two men walked back to their tent.

Chapter Ten

The mist rolling off the North Sea obscured most of the dim light afforded by the quarter moon; however, during brief breaks in the gloom, Wallace could catch an occasional glimpse of the _Gotham Town_ and _Prince of Wales_ to the starboard and port sides respectively. The two smaller frigates were the assigned escorts to the flagship _ Manhunter_.

When the wind shifted slightly from its northwest heading, sounds of music and laughter could be heard carried in the sea breeze. Wallace had never been to sea before, and he was finding the new experience invigorating and exciting. He asked the Officer of the Day permission to help on deck, and the young subaltern, grinning broadly promptly assigned him duties with the senior quartermaster. No one on board ship started at the top; even the Captain had once served as a lowly midshipman, swabbing decks and hoisting sail.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Wallace said ruefully.

On the whole he’d enjoyed his day on deck. It was confusing and at times frightening, but Wallace was a fast learner and the quartermaster never had to repeat an order or instruction. By the time the watch ended, Wallace learned how to tie five different knots, differentiate between a sea gull and an Avalon man o’ war (it would take a few days to live that one down!), swab a deck until it sparkled (then test its cleanliness by literally eating off of it), and polish brass fittings until they not only shone, he could see himself and the faces of every other man jack who’d ever polished the Bloody thing!

“I’m even beginning to talk like a seaman,” he said.

“Aye, and we’d be proud to have ye join our little club, Sir Wallace,” Ship’s Senior Quartermaster O’Reilly spoke. “For a Bloody landlubber . . . and a scurvy Army man no less . . . ye’ve not done too badly today.”

Wallace smiled. “Thank you, Mister O’Reilly. Coming from you, that’s praise indeed.” He stretched and groaned at the sore muscles that came from the endless scrubbing. “I ache in places I didn’t even know I had!” He moved his sword arm in ever-widening circles. “I thought my weekly bouts against Captain Gordon would have prepared my sword arm for just about anything. But no one ever made mention of one of His Majesty’s knights polishing brass fittings and swabbing decks by hand.” He smiled ruefully. “Next time I see any of the household staff at Castle Wayne going about their daily duties, I’ll show them each just a little more respect!”

O’Reilly laughed. “Aye! But ye are a bright one, Sir Wallace. I ne’er had to show you how to do anything more than once, afore ye had it down. Now that young Officer of the Day, Mister Cody, I must’ve tanned his back at least a half a dozen times a day because the poor lad nae could comprehend instructions correctly the first time. Hardheaded, he was. Son of a high muckity muck in His Majesty’s cabinet.” Wallace looked away, hiding his smile.

“But now . . . he’s one of the finest young officers on the _Manhunter_. I’m proud to’ve had a part in hewing him to perfection. Whoever trained you, Sir Wallace . . . ye owe that man a debt o’ gratitude. Aye, ye do indeed, lad!”

Wallace nodded his head. “Aye . . . I owe a debt of gratitude to many, Mister O’Reilly. My uncle, Sir Barry Allen who raised me as his own son, Lord Wayne who took me into his service when I was but a mere page, Captain Gordon who trained me in the arts of defense. There are others, of course, too numerous to name, yet, who because they took the time to offer advice here, or correct a stance or a grip there, I am a better man for it.” He grinned broadly at the sum total of his life. “I’m proud that they each played a part in hewing me into who I am today.”

“Well, Sir Wallace, I’d best be turning in. A seaman’s day starts mighty early while he’s out at sea. I respectfully suggest, young sir, that you turn in as well. A swabby’s life on board ship is a long and arduous one!”

“Aye, aye, Mister O’Reilly.” At that moment a deck hatch opened and the two men could hear the sounds of singing and laughter coming from below decks. The men were singing an old sea chantey about the Captain’s Daughter. They both listened for a few minutes, laughing aloud, as the lyrics became increasingly ribald.

Shaking his head, Wallace gave O’Reilly a friendly wave and bid him goodnight.

“May ye dream of a ship with white, billowed sails and a star to steer her by, lad,” said O’Reilly softly.

They broke camp long before first light. By the time the sun’s rays began peeking over the horizon, they’d been on the road for several miles. A robin that clung quietly onto a branch was startled by the strange wailing sounds wafting in the breaking dawn. The King’s own Highlander Bagpipers were waking the day in their own unique way. The shy forest creatures scurried from the rare intrusion into their peaceful existence: The advance body of the Army of Avalon was on the march to the north.

Knights rode proudly on horseback, their mailed armor glinting in the morning sun. Infantry marched in step, carrying shields, pikes, and crossbows while singing ribald ditties. Wagons laden with the supplies necessary to support a war machine trailed behind the fighting men. Pennants fluttering crisply in the breeze signified the several dozen noble families on the march. The Royal Family’s Golden Eagle holding a trident on a royal blue field flew proudly above all the others at the head of the column. This was immediately followed, in the position reserved for the Honor Guard, by the red, gold, and green colors of Clan Grayson; the clan motto, “Constant and True,” proclaimed boldly in the old Gaelic tongue.

And so it followed, the dark brooding night bird of the Wayne family, the gold crossbow on a bright emerald field of the Queen family, the Allens’ golden bolt of lightning on a scarlet field. Avalon’s oldest, proudest families united in their sworn duty to stop Mordant’s evil legions from bringing forth another Dark Age.

And yet, Richard knew that despite their brave show of strength on the march, they were woefully undermanned. Orrin’s forces, even with Wayne’s reinforcements, were barely five thousand strong. Until the main Metropolis garrison arrived with its twenty thousand men, they’d be fighting little more than a holding action. “Shoot and scoot” as Wayne used to say during his lessons in tactics; however, this was the best way for a small force to fight against a larger, better- equipped army.

Of course, King Orrin has the Emerald Warrior on his side, Richard added sardonically.

The lock turning startled them awake. The younger children began crying in terror; several huddled around Barbara. The others who’d been taken had never come back. Holding tightly to Timmy, Barbara stood protectively in front of the children. Meghan had her arms around two of the smaller ones, comforting them.

The door opened and admitted a tall hooded figure in blood-red robes. There were several others standing behind and to the sides of him. His face was partially obscured in shadow. He stood and surveyed the small group of children for a few moments, then slowly reached up and removed his hood. Barbara gasped. She didn’t know what she’d expected . . . horns, warts, certainly a countenance that mirrored the evil of his inner soul.

Instead, she saw a young man, perhaps in his early to mid-twenties, who was outwardly beautiful. There was no other word to describe him. He had golden hair that curled quite becomingly, grey eyes that showed a clear intelligence behind them, and an open demeanor that invited friendship and fellowship.

Then he smiled.

Barbara felt a shiver shoot up her spine. She had seen snakes size their prey before striking; they’d had a similar smile.

“Lady Barbara, welcome to my humble corner of your world. It isn’t much, so I intend to take Avalon to make up for it. Meanwhile, we may enjoy the somewhat enforced hospitality of our hosts.” His smile broadened. “Unfortunately, I had to kill them. They kept crossing themselves and asking to be delivered from evil . . . most annoying as you can imagine. Oh, well, who’ll notice one less obscure monastic order? It’s not like they’re the Jesuits or Franciscans or anything important like that, right?”

Barbara didn’t say anything. Why was he toying with them? What did he want? Time to take the initiative.

“These children are hungry . . . They haven’t eaten in days . . . This baby needs new cloths; the ones he has are soiled . . . You have to–”

“Have to–? Have to–? Lady Barbara, you are my prisoner! I don’t ‘have to’ anything I don’t want to do! That’s why I’m invading Avalon! Those bastards put me to sleep for almost two hundred years! They destroyed my kingdom and left me with only dregs as my followers! My exile ends now! And you and these children are going to be very helpful in ending it!”

“I don’t understand . . . why are we here? Why are you holding these children prisoner? What good could we possibly be doing for you?” she cried in anger.

“Good . . . ? I thought you understood that I didn’t do ‘good’!” he mocked. “Oh, you mean, what good are you doing for me! Well, that’s different.” He looked at the children. His grey eyes took on a dark shadow of death within them. He smiled cruelly as one of the children, a young lad of about five, suddenly collapsed.

Meghan screamed. “He’s dead! You’ve killed him! He’s dead!”

The other children began to scream in panic. Mordant smiled amused. Barbara hugged Meghan then the rest of the children to quiet them down. When she’d finally comforted the children sufficiently to still their rending sobs, replacing them with heartbreaking whimpers, Barbara knelt beside the fallen child. She touched his midnight black hair. His name had been Jason Todd, she remembered, barely five years old. She caressed his pale features, her throat catching as her finger lightly traced a light smattering of freckles across the tiny bridge of his nose.

“Why . . ? How . . ?” She managed to choke out.

“Why . . ? Because I wished it. How . . ? Like this . . !” He turned to another child. Barbara screamed in horror.

“NO-OO-OOO!!!” Mordant stayed his hand and smiled almost benignly.

“Oh, all right. At least, not yet.” His grin broadened. “How, you ask. Well, at first I had to literally make blood sacrifice . . . so messy. Did you know that if you don’t stem the blood-flow just right, it goes everywhere, getting on everything? Do you know how hard it is get bloodstains out of linen? It’s almost impossible!”

Barbara was watching him almost uncomprehendingly. He smiled at her confusion, enjoying himself immensely.

“Well, anyway, you lose so much of the blood’s essence this way . . . most inefficient. And the organs . . . ” He made a gagging gesture. “I’ve always hated liver!” His voice dropped conspiratorially.

“Mayhap I shouldn’t say this in front of the kiddies, eh?” He giggled then, a strange frightening sound, almost maniacal. “Oh, what the hell . . . they’ll find out sooner or later . . . and a mind is terrible thing to waste!” He laughed at his own quip.

“Well, after a while a very strange thing began to occur . . . I no longer needed blood sacrifice. I could feel the children’s essence . . . their life-force if you will. They’re all of Romany stock, by the way, in case you’re wondering. That’s why their life-force is so powerful . . . just like you’re betrothed’s.” He paused then smiled almost wistfully.

“Now there’s a Man . . . so powerful . . . so masculine . . . so gorgeous! Once I get my eager hands on him . . . well, I’ll enjoy myself first, of course; it’s been ages since I indulged in purely physical pleasures with one so attractive to the eye . . . But I digress.” He giggled again, and made panting sounds, like a dog in heat. Barbara grimaced in disgust.

“Anyway, the Romany life-force is so strong and I’ve grown so powerful now, that I can just draw the children’s life essence from them as the need arises. So, you could say that I’m feeding off of them even now. That’s why they’re all looking so peeked, poor lambs.” Barbara’s eyes lit with a sudden idea.

“So, why let them starve? If you need their life-force, then surely the longer you keep them healthy and alive, the longer you’ll be able to feed off of them? You can afford to be magnanimous, Mordant. Why not feed them . . . I mean, even a farmer feeds his cattle if he expects to fatten them for market and reap the greater profit.”

Mordant looked at her for a moment, his grey eyes hooded. Suddenly, he smiled. “Why not indeed?” He turned to one of his minions. “You! See to it that these children are properly fed and cleaned. Even a farmer doesn’t allow his food stores to become maggot infested, does he, Lady Barbara?” Barbara swallowed and shook her head. “And just to show you my gratitude for pointing out my short-sided mistake–!”

He gestured casually. Barbara suddenly found herself in a circular hall surrounded by walls of fire. The intense heat was overwhelming . . ! She could feel herself burning . . ! She screamed . . !

Richard screamed suddenly, and clutching his midsection doubled over and fell off Nightwing.

Riding immediately behind and to Richard’s right side, Roy was taken by surprise. His mount reared in panic, and it was all Roy could do to keep him from kicking his friend. The noncommissioned officers soon had the situation under control, however, and they successfully managed to route the column and follow-on foot soldiers around their injured Captain.

By then, Roy had moved Richard safely to the side of the road, and laid him down in the shade of a large oak. Princess Donna rode up quickly on her chestnut charger. She dismounted and hurried over to where Roy was ministering her cousin. She knelt next to Richard and gently laid his head on her lap.

“Sir Roy, what happened? Is he injured badly? Oh, please tell me!” Her worry for her cousin stabbed at Roy’s heart.

“I know not, Your Highness. We were simply riding in formation . . . He suddenly screamed and fell off his horse! I cannot explain it!”

“Perhaps I can, Your Highness.” Both youngsters looked up. Fra Haly, the Grayson family’s personal Confessor and staff prelate at Castle Wayne, until young Sir Richard came into his inheritance and returned to Graetheson Court, stood before them. The good Father was dressed in full battle armor, a Christian soldier of the Lord in fact as well as in spirit.

“If I’m correct, then Sir Richard has just been the victim of some sort of foul necromancy,” he said as he dismounted. At this moment, Lord Wayne rode up at full gallop on Nightstar. He expertly brought his war-horse to a full stop on an instant. Before anyone could say anything, he’d dismounted and kneeled next to Richard. He studied his adopted son for a few moments without saying anything. There was no show of emotion on his hard features; his dark eyes were obscured by his battle helm. Then, as if noticing the others for the first time, he stood to his full height.

“What happened? I heard Richard fell off his horse, and as that is as near an impossibility as a man being able to fly, I came immediately.”

“We’re not sure what happened, Lord Wayne,” Donna began, “but Fra Haly believes that–”

“–That Sir Richard could be victim to some foul necromancy, milord,” Haly finished.

They were interrupted by Richard’s sudden mutterings. “Barbara . . . I’m here . . . your hand . . . your HAND . . ! NO! BARBARA . . !” Richard shouted this last and sat up suddenly, reaching for his love who had been taken from him yet again.

Barbara screamed and screamed again! The heat was overwhelming her . . . her flaming red hair was now literally aflame. She could feel her face blistering . . . her hands . . . all exposed areas of her body. “My God . . . my God . . . ” she whispered, falling on her knees and sobbing. “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

“Barbara . . . Barbara . . . ” the gentle whisper entered her head. Richard’s complete love and devotion suddenly enveloped her like a soothing balm. She felt the flames recede suddenly, an emerald fountain of fresh spring waters rising in a cooling plume around her.

Barbara looked up from where she knelt. A hand was held, palm out, to her. Richard stood before her, an emerald knight in emerald armor, reaching his hand out to her. A benign green-hued halo radiated from within and without him . . . the Emerald Eye, she knew. Somehow the Emerald Eye had brought Richard to her, to take her back.

Smiling through her tears, she slowly reached her hand out to him. He suddenly seemed to move away . . . it seemed that the further out she reached the further back he retreated. His smile faltered . . . He began to dissolve before her . . . He called to her . . !

“BARBARA . . !” Richard awoke. He looked around dazedly. He was sitting on the ground, in the warm spring morning. A few feet away, the column still marched, oblivious to what was happening on the side of the road. He could hear the sounds of creaking leather, metal striking metal, horses’ shod hooves, men’s rhythmic marching, and squeaky wheels turning laboriously–the typical sounds of an army on the move.

He felt a sudden wave of dizziness wash over him. Donna called out worriedly, “Richard! Don’t try to stand, cousin. Rest yet awhile.” Richard shook his head impatiently.

“Nay, cousin! I must away to Melrose Abbey . . . Barbara needs me. Her jeopardy increases with each passing moment!” His clear blue eyes became dangerously icy. “He toys with her . . . he toys with her!” He reached for a hand up from his guardian. “Bruce, I swear on my parents’ graves that he will pay for the tortures that he puts her through! I swear it!”

“Aye, lad; however, rushing headlong to face such a powerful enemy without proper preparation will gain you nothing, except perhaps your death and Barbara’s. What then? The legacy of the Emerald Guardians states that the Chosen shall come during this generation and lead us all to victory against the Forces of Dark. But the Chosen must be ready for the encounter.” He gave his ward a hard, unsympathetic look.

“Yes, Mordant toys with Barbara . . . but more importantly he toys with you! He knows that you’re not ready yet . . . He wants you to go rushing foolishly into his arms. Once there, you stand little chance of defeating him. And what of Avalon . . . what of our people . . . all will be lost then. Mordant will have won . . . We will have entered a New Age of Darkness.” He appeared as unyielding as the stony crags upon which Castle Wayne stood. Then pointing a gauntleted hand at Richard he said harshly, “Like it or not, Sir Richard Lord Grayson, you are the Emerald Chosen. It is your legacy.”

“I didn’t choose this legacy! And I don’t want it!” Richard shouted. “All of my life people have whispered about me . . . said things I didn’t understand. Some even used to make warding signs when as a mere lad, I first arrived at Castle Wayne . . . as if by looking at them I could turn them into a frog or cause warts. You know that! Alfred used to come into my chambers at night and hold me in his arms, because I hated being thought different. And Barbara . . . Barbara used to make me laugh . . . I think I’ve loved her all my life, Bruce . . . ” Turning anguished eyes to the heavens, he cried out, “She is my life! Why have you taken her from me? Why?!”

“Nay, lad . . . ‘ It isn’t our Lord in Heaven who has taken her . . . but rather Satan’s spawn here on earth,” Fra Haly spoke quietly. “You’ve been blessed with the power to bring down this demon, Sir Richard, but you must know how to wield it properly. You cannot depend on these flashes or visions that come to you only in times of great stress. You must learn to control the Emerald Eye and not have the Emerald Eye control you. For once you can harness this power and brandish it as easily as that sword that hangs on your side, then will you be ready to face Mordant and end his reign of evil.”

Richard nodded, his head hanging dejectedly, his back to them. Not turning, he asked Haly in a subdued tone, “Father, will you hear my confession? If I must face this evil, then I must face it in a fitting state of Grace.”

“Aye, lad,” Haly said. The others moved away respectfully, giving Richard and his Confessor privacy.

Chapter Eleven

The proud Avalon Navy crossed the halfway point at eight bells; loud cheers of “Long live the King! Hip, hip . . . hooray!” could be heard resounding across the waters, passing from ship to ship like wildfire. Sir Clark stood on the bridge of the _Manhunter_ with Captain Sir Perry White and Lord Admiral Sir John Jones. The fleet would soon be arriving at its disembarkation point at Abb’s Head, fully six hours ahead of schedule.

They sailed on calm seas for the rest of the morning, a rare enough occasion in the North Sea to warrant feelings of unease from the more experienced sailors. Perched high above the ship’s deck on the main topsail’s yardarm, Wallace concentrated on tying a seemingly endless array of knots and on not looking down.

“I tell ye, lad, ‘ It’s unnatural for the North Sea to be so beguiling. She’s the witchiest woman ye’ll e’er encounter. If she be loving and yielding at the moment, then the next she’ll be trying to rip yon mainmast off its foundations! Ye mark me words!” Wallace smiled at the old sailor who was speaking. O’Reilly had assigned Seaman Bilbo the job of teaching Wallace the ropes, a task the veteran sailor undertook with pride.

The old seaman called out a sudden warning.

“Avast, lad! D’ye wish to bring down the mainmast?” At Wallace’s emphatic negative shake of the head, Bilbo continued, “Then don’t untie that span . . . that’s the mainstay; it helps to steady and support the mainmast.”

Wallace swallowed a little unsteadily; he then carefully reached for the correct line. He looked at Bilbo for confirmation; the old seaman nodded his head sagely. Wallace let his breath out in a swoosh; he hadn’t even noticed that he’d been holding it. Working at the top of the world could be a little unnerving even for one of His Majesty’s knights.

Thus the morning quietly passed.

Wallace spent most of it viewing the comings and goings of the ship’s company from high above. Bilbo was a character and an old salt, but he knew knots, sails, and just about anything else nautical. In the short time that Wallace had spent with him, he felt that he’d learned more than during his entire schooling as both a page and a squire. He felt pleased with his decision to work during his passage, rather than sit idly in the officers’ wardroom with the other passengers of noble blood.

The period of calm did not last. Soon after the sun passed its zenith, the blackness descended upon the fleet. A startled cry from the forward lookouts was the first warning.

“Storm clouds . . ! Dead ahead . . !”

The calm seas suddenly whipped to hurricane fury. Over the gale force winds, Wallace heard shouted orders:

“. . . batten down the hatches!”

“. . . lower the mainsail!”

“. . . steady as she goes, bosun!”

Men scrambled to carry out the commands, fighting valiantly against the surging seas and unsteady decks. From his perch on the maintop, the platform at the head of the mainmast, Wallace began his precarious walk to release the mainsheet, in order to trim the mainsail before it was torn in the storm. Above the screeching winds, he could hear the cries of men suddenly thrust into danger and fighting to stay alive.

A towering wave suddenly crashed with explosive force across the Bridge, washing the First Officer and Bosun’s Mate over the side. Left pilotless, the _Manhunter_ rolled uncontrollably first to starboard, then to port. The ship’s bow was literally lifted out of the churning waters as the unearthly cyclone engulfed her. Then just as casually she was thrust back in, sending a shudder through the entire ship. As the ship lurched, Wallace suddenly lost his footing and only with a Herculean effort managed to latch onto a safety line. The loud unnatural groans of the ship’s hull seemingly being torn in two sent shivers of terror through his very being.

That’s when he saw the wall of water.

“In the name of God,” Wallace cried into the wind, “what’s happening?”

“. . . In the name of the Father . . . ” Fra Haly murmured as he gave Richard the final Blessing following absolution. Richard remained kneeling in silent prayer a moment longer. Then as he looked up at his Confessor, a strange halo-like aura began to radiate from the young knight. Richard closed his eyes and appeared to be looking inwardly. He still knelt, his arms at his sides, palms held out. A profound sense of peace spread across his handsome features. The faint greenish glow could just be made out in the bright sunshine.

The others looked upon him with awe. Wayne recovered first.

“Quickly! Shield him from the column!” The others rushed to stand between Richard and the passing lines of infantry.

Thus, they stood and watched awestruck as the Emerald Warrior emerged and did engage in battle against the Dark. From their perspective, however, all they saw was Richard kneeling before them as if in deep meditation; however, the almost electrified energy that sparkled from the young man told them all they needed to know . . .

Wallace felt himself falling . . . falling into the churning waters of the freezing North Sea. A calm voice in his head brought him back from the cold and the darkness.

“Wallace, take my hand . . . Be not afraid, my friend . . . here is my hand . . . take it!” Wallace reached out and suddenly felt a comforting warmth suffuse his entire being. A sense of calmness spread through the length and breadth of his body.

He woke.

Wallace was back on the maintop, lashed to it with a length of rope. How? He looked around in a daze . . . the wind whipped the cold sleet and seawater on his face with relentless ferocity. He turned his head to starboard. His eyes widened at the stunning sight. His throat caught; he couldn’t breathe.

Kneeling calmly in midair, his arms spread-eagled, his palms out, encompassed in a shroud of emerald light, was his best friend since childhood, Richard Grayson! Neither the wind nor rain seemed able to touch him. In fact, as Wallace blinked the water out of his own eyes, he could see that the sleet was literally stopped by what seemed to be a protective emerald cocoon encircling his friend.

Wallace could see Richard’s lips moving; his friend gestured suddenly with his hands, then whipping them up as if throwing something at the very heavens, a fierce emerald energy, burst forth from his outstretched hands in a thundering crack! The green beam of light shot straight up, cutting a swath of emerald energy through the evil blackness that had befallen the hapless fleet. The darkness retreated before the light, and within an eye blink, the fleet was again sailing in calm waters.

Richard’s eyes fluttered open. The emerald halo dissipated so quickly Donna wondered if it had ever truly been there. Richard felt a wave of dizziness course through him. He felt as weak as when the fever had hit him two summers past. As he was about to fall backwards, Roy knelt down and offered his friend a supporting arm.

“There now, Richard, none of that. You’ve got an army of soldiers marching past. You wouldn’t want them to think you’re some kind of weak lass, now would you?” Roy’s worried tone belied the lightness of his words.

Richard grinned weakly. “If I’m a weak lass . . . then there’s no more dangerous a place in all of Avalon . . . than to be in your arms, eh, Roy?” Roy guffawed delightedly. Noticing Donna’s disapproving glare, Roy suddenly cleared his throat and chas It’sed Richard with mock-severity.

“By the strings on my crossbow . . . if you can jest, you fake, then you’re fit to stand on your own two feet!” As he was about to let go, Richard suddenly collapsed . . .

. . . Awareness came first. Next, sounds and voices began to seep into his consciousness.

“Is he awake yet?” “How long now?” “Are you certain that he isn’t injured . . . chasing maids . . . faking?”

The last two were Garth and Roy. Richard recognized their voices through his haze between wakefulness and sleep. He smiled in his dreamlike state. He was glad some members of his inner circle could still jest openly. He hated being ill . . . people always fussed so over you.

Finally, there was no longer a need to remain asleep. When he eventually woke up, Richard felt like he’d been on one of Captain Gordon’s infamous twenty mile training hikes. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the angled canvas roof of his field tent. The second was Bruce Wayne’s inscrutable countenance. The two men exchanged half smiles in greeting.

“I see you’re finally awake . . . I’ll have to send a missive to Alfred and let him know that you’re all right. He sent you some of his famous chicken soup and insisted that we ladle you with it day and night until you came to. I was sorely feared for few a days that we were drowning you!”

“Days?” Richard asked dismayed.

“Aye, lad. You have been unconscious for almost four days now. The Metropolis Garrison has joined us, as have the Welch archers and fusiliers, and Captain Gordon’s green troops. We are currently ensconced on the east-west line that runs from Moffat to the Cheviot Hills. When we first arrived we began a holding action and were quite successful. Sir Clark and the garrison arrived yesterday . . . They had a very interesting sea tale to share with us. Many thought they had all gone sea happy, but I believe them.”

Richard looked at his guardian in amazement. “Then it wasn’t a dream . . ? I really did . . . all that?” Wayne nodded.

“You really did all that!” He looked on his adopted son with quiet pride. “You saved the fleet, lad . . . I suppose it would be cliche to say that you saved the day . . . but truth be told, you did.” He gave Richard a rare smile. “Are you ready to join the war, lad? The forces of Avalon await us!”

Richard smiled in turn.

As Richard emerged from his tent, he was met by the resounding clamor of thousands of shields being struck repeatedly by swords. Rank upon rank of soldiers took up the thunderous roar.

“Richard . . ! RICHard . . ! RICHARD . . ! RICHARD . . !

Richard stood still, stunned by the accolade. He swallowed, a sudden lump in his throat making it difficult to breathe. He looked around and saw his friends and family joining in the cheering. His uncle the King was smiling in proud approval. Richard slowly walked up to his Sovereign and drew his sword forth; he held it before him and kissed its hilt. Then kneeling in supplication before King Orrin, he offered him the sword, a bejeweled Grayson family heirloom.

“I swear on my honor, as hereditary Chieftain of Clan Grayson and all Dumfrieshire and Strathclyde, that my sword and my shield are yours today and for all eternity, Sire . . . As did my father before me and his father before him swear . . . As have all Graysons since before the time of the Great Mage War sworn fealty to the Crown of Avalon.” He felt his shoulders being tapped lightly, and looked proudly into his King’s direct gaze.

“Rise, Sir Richard Lord Grayson. . . and serve Us and Avalon as is your right and your duty as one who is Clan Grayson born!”

Richard bowed his head, then stood. He turned to face the gathered armies, and holding his sword aloft cried out, “We march today against the Forces of Darkness . . . WHO GOES WITH US?”

His answer came in the form of resounding cheers growing like a tidal wave from rank to rank of the combined armies of Avalon. Standing tall, his face alight with pride, Richard roared Avalon’s battle-cry:

“For FREEDOM . . ! For GOD AND KING . . ! FOR . . . AVALON . . !”

The cry was immediately taken up by all: “FOR FREEDOM . . ! FOR GOD AND KING . . ! FOR . . . AVALON . . !”

The clamor could be heard even inside whatever dungeon Barbara and children were being held prisoner in. By now, the little ones were all too weak to move about. Although they were now being fed a thin gruel with a slice of moldy bread and water once a day, it was just barely sufficient to keep them alive. Whatever strength they might absorb from the poor nourishment, Mordant drew it from them almost immediately. The children stopped crying days ago . . . or was it hours? Barbara couldn’t tell. Too weak to sit up, they just lay curled in fetal positions on the filthy cell floor.

Barbara was forced to feed them even the small allotted amounts of food by hand. Most of the younger ones were too far gone to even recognize food when it was put in their mouths. Barbara feared the most for Timmy. He was the youngest and smallest; therefore, he was the most susceptible to the ravages of starvation. And yet, he smiled happily whenever she held him closely to her bosom seemingly oblivious to the whole ordeal.

Meghan’s eyes lost their luster . . . she retreated into a safe place that only she knew. Barbara was beside herself with grief. The children wouldn’t last another day under these conditions. Tears of hopelessness streaming from her eyes, she began to pray in the words she’d been taught as a little girl.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name . . . Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done On earth as it is in Heaven . . .” she whispered, tears flowing unbidden. “. . . And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil . . . ”

The door suddenly exploded from its hinges!

“How dare you utter such blasphemies in my house?” Mordant stood before her, his eyes wild with fear and anger. “You bitch!” he screamed, slapping her across the face. “How DARE YOU?!” He gestured in a fit of rage and the room dissolved into darkness.

When she awoke, she stood on a platform, bound hand and foot upon a stake. The children were likewise bound. Most were too weak to take more than a disinterested note of their situation. Meghan was crying inconsolably. Barbara saw that the platform was piled high with flammable materials. A cold icy hand gripped her insides.

And little Timmy . . ? Barbara looked around in sudden panic . . . where was he?

“Timmy!” she cried out. “Meghan! Where’s Timmy?”

She heard a sudden laugh, a laugh that frightened her more than any of the cruelties that had been visited upon them throughout their captivity.

“Are you looking for this little one?” Mordant held Timmy gently in his arms. The babe had been cleaned and looked well-fed and happy. “The Romany life-force surges powerfully through him . . . even more so than all the others combined. I believe, Lady Barbara, that here in my arms is the Chosen of the next generation.” Barbara’s eyes widened in fear as Mordant’s face lit in sheer unadulterated ecstasy.

“I draw from him even now . . . and the little tyke just replaces it like he’s a perpetual energy machine. He has the power of a thousand suns flowing within him. I don’t need the rest of you anymore.” He grinned delightedly. “You were becoming too much like an unwanted guest who has overstayed his welcome, anyway; practically eating me out of house and home.”

When Timmy saw Barbara, his eyes lit in joy and he immediately held his arms out to her.

“Baw-bwa! Baw-bwa!” When it became apparent that he wasn’t going to be allowed to go his surrogate mother, Timmy became increasingly agitated. His wails started softly but soon increased to gale-force volume. His broken hearted childish cries were carried by the wind. They were picked up by the birds that flew through the forests as they rushed away from the growing corruption that permeated Melrose Abbey. The birds, in turn, passed it on to the squirrels as they chattered and scurried about digging under roots and hiding in the brush.

Eventually, the small boy’s cries were heard and heeded by the One whose sole remaining purpose was to champion the cause of Good against Evil, Light against Dark . . .

Riding at his place as the Captain of the Honor Guard, Richard suddenly pulled Nightwing to a stop and stood lightly on his stirrups. He felt the mantle of the Emerald Warrior envelop him. Nightwing sensed the sudden change in his master and stamped nervously. Richard sent him a comforting thought:

Richard faced the long, chivalric line.

“Mordant oversteps himself even now! He holds his hostages bound and gagged at the stake! He intends on committing wholesale murder, as a token sacrifice to his evil Lord. I go now to stop his blasphemies . . . who joins me?” The roaring cheers were his answer. Gripping Nightwing’s reins from his standing position, Richard urged him into a light canter. From there, Nightwing’s gait slowly increased until he was at full gallop.

Richard maneuvered Nightwing until they were leading the column. Squatting down on his haunches, Richard easily returned to a sitting position in a single smooth motion. The army moved quickly in disciplined formation through the forests covering the Cheviots.

As he rode through the wooded hills, Richard’s trained eyes spotted the distinct signs of battle from the recent holding action that the advanced guard was forced to fight during the preceding days while he’d lain unconscious following his battle against the storm at sea.

As the column moved, Roy, riding alongside Richard, regaled him with stories of his own personal prowess during countless hit and run skirmishes, near captures, and deadly hand-to-hand encounters he’d engaged in. With each more impossible tale of personal derring-do that Roy boasted of, Richard wondered if anyone else had been involved in the shadow war. Coming up from behind and joining them, Princess Donna finally interrupted Roy’s nonstop braggadocio.

“Richard, Lord Wayne led the Avalon forces with such an acute brilliance that Father is considering asking him to take the honorary title of Lord Field Marshal during these days of war.” She paused, then looking pointedly at Roy, continued, “As for Sir Roy here . . . the self-proclaimed hero of Avalon . . . I seem to recall Lord Wayne coming up behind him once or twice just as a few of the dark forces were about to filet him!”

“Ah, yes, Your Highness,” Roy countered good-naturedly, “but only because Lord Wayne couldn’t bear the thought of losing such a valuable commodity as I.”

The two antagonists’ squabbling continued through the ride across the Cheviots. Richard, riding between them, shook his head in long-suffering silence. He wished they’d just kiss and get it over with. It’d work for Barbara and him, he added smiling.

In fact, Richard was already well briefed about the previous days’ actions. According to Sir Barry, a source Richard considered somewhat more reliable than his good friend, Sir Roy, Lord Wayne did indeed lead the Avalon forces brilliantly in a shadow war against the larger enemy. Apparently, Wayne’s experience as the Dark Knight taught him more tactics about covert warfare than any of the other officers and advisors on Orrin’s staff. He knew that their only hope for success was to hit the enemy quickly, then disappear into the relative protection afforded by the heavily wooded and rough terrain of the Cheviots.

At first, most of the knights shied away from such a form of warfare; it went against the first rule of chivalry they’d been taught with their mother’s milk: A knight met his opponent on a field of honor, face to face. However, Avalon wasn’t at war with an honorable enemy; therefore, for the good of Avalon, they quickly learned a second rule: Honor is the first casualty of war.

The long-awaited arrivals of Field Marshal Sir Clark Kent in command of the Metropolis garrison, the Prince of Wales’ Archers and Fusiliers from the Cardiff Garrison, and Captain Sir James Gordon, in command of Lord Wayne’s Castle Guard, placed the combined armies of Avalon on a slightly more equal footing with its dreaded enemy. The time for shadow wars was ended.

It was time for Avalon to force the Dark Legions into the Light . . .

Finally, the endless lines of horses, infantry, archers, and wagons arrived at their destination, the Tweed River valley, which ran immediately on the northern side of the rugged Cheviots . . .

As he emerged from the shadows of the tree line, Richard could see the forward line of Mordant’s legions in the valley below building defensive fortifications along the banks of the Tweed. Richard pulled back on Nightwing’s reins, bringing him abruptly to a halt. The Avalon forces stopped their advance at his signal. His eyes squinted in the glare of the afternoon sun and the constant dust kicked by thousands of men and horses on the move. Hooking his leg over the pommel of his saddle, Richard studied the situation.

Further north towards Melrose Abbey, he could make out what appeared to be an unnatural reddish haze. He turned away and concentrated at the task at hand, assessing the deployment of the enemy’s bulwarks. Whatever was happening at the abbey would have to wait.

Wallace and Roy came up next to him. The three of them had worked and played together since they were children. Richard had always been the natural leader, while Roy and Wallace followed lightheartedly. Now, each one a knight in his own right, they fell quite easily and naturally into the camaraderie of old. As always, Richard was thinking and planning, while Roy and Wallace jested quietly as they waited.

Noting the hasty and haphazard configuration of the enemy’s defensive fortifications, Richard grinned disdainfully. Raising his hands, he closed his eyes and gazed inwardly to the very center of his soul. He uttered words that came unbidden to his tongue, and instantly felt himself surging with a surplus of energy as it built rapidly within him.

Startled, his companions’ horses began stomping and rearing nervously.

Richard ignored them. With each usage, Richard found himself increasingly able to control the Emerald Eye’s energy levels. He could now prevent the unnecessary power overflow that had caused him to collapse earlier. Lifting his eyes to the Heavens, Richard asked their Blessing, then turning to the enemy emplacements, he focused the emerald magics that were crackling from his fingertips, and sent bolt after deadly bolt of arcane energy at the entrenchments, breaking the disciplined ranks with each succeeding strike. Until finally, all military discipline collapsed within the Dark Legions and they dispersed in a panicked rout.

The Avalon army’s victory proved premature, however.

As the enemy lines broke, Orrin’s forces chased the routed legions. Before long, in an obviously preplanned maneuver, Mordant’s army turned to fight. Richard’s forward company of horse soldiers found itself suddenly enveloped by the enemy. They’d been led neatly into an ambush! Mordant’s reserve forces, which were lying in wait for them, streamed in from all sides in wave after wave.

Richard cut and slashed automatically at anything that came within proximity of his sword. Nightwing reared and kicked, lashing out at any enemy who dared approach from the ground. Richard caught a glimpse of Roy aiming and firing his twin crossbows faster than Richard thought humanly possible. Roy suddenly disappeared in the swarm of battle. Before long, Richard felt a protective presence next to him. Lord Wayne had somehow worked his way to fight alongside his adopted son. The Dark Knight and his squire, Robin, battled side-by-side against the forces of evil once more.

Next, Richard saw Wallace on the ground; his charger grievously wounded. He was holding off two of the enemy single-handedly. Saber in one hand, dirk in the other, Wallace fought his two opponents in tandem, thrusting and parrying at one, then the other. Richard quickly fought his way over to Wallace. However, by the time he arrived, Wallace had already downed his two opponents and was facing off with another.

Richard shook his head relieved, and decided to concentrate on his own battles. He heard Princess Donna call over the fray, “Roy! Behind you!” Richard turned in time to see Roy unhorsed by several of the hordes. Apparently, the young archer’s crossbows had jammed at almost the same instant and he was caught off guard. Richard quickly maneuvered Nightwing to help his friend. He needn’t have bothered . . . again.

Princess Donna rode out of the dust and confusion of battle like a fearsome guardian angel, brandishing her sword and shield, and savagely fought off the foul scum who had overtaken Roy. Smiling through her battle helm, she reached down and gave the young knight-errant a hand up. Gratefully, Roy settled in behind her. To Richard’s overprotective eyes, Roy also appeared to be holding onto his cousin a bit too tightly.

To the dismay of Sir Oliver and Sir Barry, their Royal Majesties, whom they were each sworn to protect as their champions, kept engaging the enemy in personal combat, taking unnecessary risks with their own safety. After cutting off yet another attack from behind on the King, Oliver had to admit that the Amazon-bred Queen Diana was the superior warrior; however, as King Orrin returned the favor by downing an enemy who was about skewer him, Oliver quickly added that Orrin was a formidable fighter as well.

Prince Garth distinguished himself throughout the day as he led his eponymous archers and fusiliers to victory after victory on the battlefield. The Welch soldiers, led by the Crown Prince, were seemingly everywhere that long afternoon, cutting through the enemy’s heavy defenses by firing volley after deadly volley of deadly arrows. Once their supply of arrows was expended, they ran headlong into the fray and fought hand-to-hand . . .

. . . The fierce battle lasted through the late afternoon. Richard lost track of time; as the day progressed, a vague sense of increasing alarm overtook him. Barbara and the children . . . he had to get to them!

Richard looked around through the swarms of fighting men and screaming horses. The sun was beating down on them mercilessly . . . the incessant dust obscured all but a few feet around him. Spotting a small knoll at the perimeter of the battle, Richard spurred Nightwing towards it. When he reached it, he surveyed the battle from his elevated position. The fighting continued with no signs of abatement.

The carnage had to end . . . now! Clutching the Emerald Eye in his hands, Richard began to utter words which sprang forth from the depths of his very soul, words he did not know, yet had known all his life: “In brightest day, in blackest night . . . ”

As he whispered the Creed of the Emerald Guardians, the sounds of battle began to retreat into the dim recesses of his mind. He felt the emerald mantle encompass him . . . build . . . grow . . . expand . . . then touch Orrin’s forces, encircling them in a protective green energy shield . . . Finally, the Emerald Warrior released the energies that powered the very sun on the abominations that Mordant’s necromancy had conjured. The sorcerer’s Dark Legions, creatures that by right belonged only in shadows, were struck down repeatedly, relentlessly by the cleansing light of unsullied truth.

To the amazement of Orrin’s armies, the enemy fell before them. Not slowly, or one by one, but all at once. A bright flash of emerald energy flared momentarily, leaving them all temporarily blinded. When they were finally able to see again, they were greeted by an awesome sight: Mordant’s legions had been reverted to the very dust from whence they’d come.

As the emerald shroud slowly dissipated around them, the armies of daylight looked upon the small knoll where sat alone warrior upon his dark charger. Quietly at first, then with increasing volume, the battlefield resounded with the loud cheers of thousands of throats raised in triumph. However, the Emerald Warrior’s shoulders weighed heavily still, for his task was far from over.

It was time to ride into the Heart of Darkness . . .

Chapter Twelve

“Nay, Bruce. This is my task and mine alone. Should I fail to return, then Avalon will need all her sons and daughters to stand ready to continue the battle.” Richard stood quietly at ease in the warm circle of family and friends. He held Wayne’s eyes steadily. “You said it yourself, Bruce . . . Like it or not, this is my legacy . . . and my responsibility.”

“Nephew!” Queen Diana pleaded quietly. “Is there nothing we can say to stay your drinking from such a bitter cup?”

“Nay, Your Majesty. You of all people should know that to a Grayson, duty comes first.” Richard smiled affectionately. “However, I do have one small request . . ?”

“Anything, Richard,” she replied.

“My own dearly beloved mother is no longer here . . . therefore, I would ask, Your Majesty, if you would bestow upon me a mother’s blessing before I embark on my journey?”

At his request, he saw his courageous, warrior-Princess cousin turn to Roy suddenly in tears. The Queen valiantly fought to maintain control of her own churning emotions. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Richard kneeled before his Queen and beloved aunt, and bowing his head, the young knight fought against his own tears.

Holding her hands tenderly above Richard’s raven head, Diana intoned a mother’s gentle blessing: “May the road you take be free of obstacles . . . May your journey be free from harm . . . May the Lord bless you and keep you safe always, free from all anxiety. In His name we pray . . . Amen.”

Richard stood slowly. It was time to bid his farewells to his loved ones. He hugged his aunt the Queen and then his cousin the Princess. He bade his uncle the King and his cousin the Crown Prince, adieu. He turned to his childhood companions and slapped them each on the shoulders. At last, he turned to face the man whom he had grown to love as a father.

“You don’t have to look like all is lost, Bruce,” he said with mock severity. “I have become quite proficient with this ‘Emerald Warrior’ mantle . . . well, I’ve become better, anyway. God’s Blood! Bruce, one would think that you didn’t have any faith in me–!”

“Enough!” Wayne said, making a single slashing motion. “You are the Chosen, and you are ready. Go, Richard. Fulfill your destiny . . . All of Avalon’s hopes and dreams go with you.” Wayne and Richard grasped each other’s arms. “God speed, lad.” Wayne held him a moment longer, then quickly released him.

Richard turned and mounted Nightwing in a single motion. Then without looking back, the Emerald Warrior began the final leg of his journey with destiny.

The army parted in subdued respect as Richard and Nightwing rode through the ranks. When they reached the forward lines, Richard spurred Nightwing to a light canter, then gently urged his gallant charger into a gallop. After they crossed the river Tweed, Richard communicated a need for even greater speed. Nightwing responded with a sudden burst that seemed to send horse and rider airborne.

Nightwing’s gait was so smooth it seemed as if he was flying. Richard looked down, and to his astonishment he saw that they were indeed flying! With a grim wave at the Avalon Army, Richard urged Nightwing on to Melrose Abbey. He had to arrive before it was too late. A part of his mind was awestruck that he was flying; another part took it in stride. After all, it wasn’t he who was doing the flying; it was the Emerald Eye.

Grimly, he urged Nightwing on. “Let’s away, boy! Lady Barbara needs us!”

As the grounds of the old abbey came into view, Richard brought Nightwing in for a soft descent. The abbey seemed to be surrounded by a crimson-hued energy ring. Richard reached his hand out cautiously to it. He was instantly thrown back several feet. He lay where he’d fallen–stunned. Nightwing came up to him and nuzzled his master’s face gently.

“Uh-h-h . . . what happened?” he groaned. Nightwing gave a snort and stamped his front hoofs in disapproval. “All right . . . it was a foolish move . . . no need to get saucy.” Richard sat up and held his head, willing it to stop spinning. When he thought he could stand without falling down again, Richard looked up at Nightwing and grabbed one of his stirrups. He pulled himself to his feet using Nightwing as support. Taking several deep calming breaths, Richard eventually felt that the earth had stopped circling round him.

Taking stock of the situation, Richard studied the energy field encompassing the abbey. It seemed to pulsate and change hue every few seconds. Concentrating on the changing bands of rippling energy, Richard reached inside himself and began to analyze the bands. He discovered that they represented differing wavelengths of the light spectrum. The darker the hue, the broader the band.

Excited, Richard’s keen intelligence began to absorb these new, and to him, arcane concepts. Quickly, he saw that the broader the band, the weaker the link, because the wider bands required a larger amount of energy to sustain them. Since the bands were ever changing . . . expanding and contracting . . . at incredible speeds, the photo-electric energies weren’t being given sufficient time to reform a bond before they were broken again.

Richard might never have read about or heard of these ideas before, but he did know with quiet certainty that they behaved according to natural law and that if he should circumvent that law, then he’d be able to negate their flow. Closing his eyes and holding his arms straight out at his sides, Richard went into a place deep within his soul, a place that he had yet to tap and explore. Instinctively, he knew that here, in this quiet place, lay the source of all Romany power that was his by birthright to claim.

Richard saw and learned and remembered and forgot more images and concepts and abstractions than he had ever known of before or would again. An eternity later or a split-second . . . he could not be sure, his eyes fluttered opened. A wave of dizziness washed over him, passing quickly, and the Emerald Warrior was once again ready to do battle.

Richard drew his sword, stood back from the energy field, and took a battle stance. As he readied for action, he willed a giant energy sword, identical to his own Grayson family heirloom but for the size, to appear before and above him. As the green apparition instantly appeared, Richard drew back his saber as if to strike an enemy. In perfect sync, the giant sword drew back as well, mirroring his move.

Smiling ferally, Richard slashed down with his sword. The giant energy sword slashed down through the energy field, cutting through the bands of light, preventing them from reforming their delicate bonds. The energy field collapsed in a light rain of sparkling rubies.

“By the Guardians of Oa! Where was this power when Captain Gordon made quick work of my poor swordsmanship?” Awed at the energies at his command, a subdued Richard mounted Nightwing and spurred him on. Together, rider and horse tore like the wind across the abbey’s grounds and rode on to the quadrangle.

When they arrived, he pulled Nightwing short. As Nightwing reared, Richard brandished his sword in defiance. His arrival caused a slight stir, but hardly enough to ruffle feathers. Mordant’s crimson-robed followers remained standing at the foot of the sacrificial altar, holding burning torches.

Mordant looked out at his expected guest and clapped his hands in mock salute.

“Ah, finally! I was beginning to think the Emerald Warrior wouldn’t make it to his own funeral! Well, I wish I could stay and chat, but I’ve got worlds to conquer and people to subjugate. So, if you’ll excuse me–” Mordant gestured with his right hand, and the kindling underneath the sacrificial platform flared suddenly in spontaneous combustion. The children began screaming in mortal terror!

Mordant gestured a second time, and Richard found himself surrounded by a wall of fire.

Nightwing reared in panic almost throwing his rider. Richard sent Nightwing a mental note of reassurance.

Richard quickly whispered a few words, then fully extending his arms out, he turned his hands palms down, then slowly lowered them to his sides. As he did so, the pouring deluge slowed to a shower, then to a light sprinkle, then stopped altogether. The clouds quickly dissipated and the late setting sun broke through.

“So foolish, Emerald Warrior. You see, I’m going to kill him anyway!” With that Mordant made as if to slit Timmy’s throat.

“NO!!!” Richard cried out in righteous anger. As he yelled, he reached out both mentally and physically, and in the next instant, oversized green hands yanked Timmy out of Mordant’s evil grasp and brought the boy safely into his arms. “You are a blasphemy to those who live in the light! I will send you back to whatever black hellhole you and your minions crawled from!”

“HA!! Listen to you!” Mordant taunted. “You learn a few parlor tricks and suddenly you think you’re the high and mighty Emerald Warrior! Well, it’ll take more than a little rain to stop me from advancing on Avalon!” He held out his arms, and began to utter the profane oaths that had brought the world to its knees all those generations ago.

As Mordant began his evil incantation, Barbara began to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . ”

Richard began the Emerald Warrior’s creed: “In brightest day, in blackest night . . . ”

“. . . thy kingdom come . . . ” Meghan picked it up, reciting it with Barbara.

“. . . no evil shall escape my sight . . . ”

“. . . thy will be done . . . ” Another child joined them in prayer.

“. . . Let those who worship evil’s might . . . ”

“. . . but deliver us from evil . . . ” And another.

“. . . Beware my power . . . ”

“. . . For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are yours, now and forever!” Until all of the children who were still conscious finished the Lord’s Prayer together.

“. . . Green Lantern’s Light!!!”

Several impossible conjurings began to coalesce at once.

Mordant’s black spell awakened an even greater blackness that immediately began to make its displesure known at being disturbed from its eternal sleep . . .

Black storm clouds gathered above the abbey and began to turn counter-clockwise, slowly at first, but with increasing velocity, until at last, a swirling, black whirlpool began to open between the realm of light and dark . . .

Barbara felt the very earth beneath Melrose Abbey begin to rumble and shift as the creature started walking from deep below . . .

Orrin’s forces watched in awe as the skies darkened and formed a black, swirling whirlpool above the abbey. Panic began to spread along the ranks. Wayne saw that the army was ready to break and run!

The whirlpool widened until it seemed to Richard that he could see into the very maw of Hell . . .

Nightwing reared on his hind legs as the ground beneath began to break apart . . . Mordant’s panicking crimson-robed minions began scurrying for cover from the dark creature that was coming . . .

The screams of the damned could be heard, echoing from the swirling Hell-mouth that Richard opened . . .

The creature of the night emerged from its foul den beneath and reared its fetid head out into the light of the setting sun . . . Roaring in fury, it gaped its mouth open and struck out at anything that moved. A hapless follower of Mordant disappeared into its infinite gullet. Unsated, it looked around with its sightless eyes for another morsel . . .

The Royal family and all the nobles on the field rode up and down the ranks spreading calm and order to the frightened masses; however, Wayne knew that so few couldn’t be everywhere at once . . .

Barbara felt the whirlpool pulling at her . . . her hair was being whipped violently about her, stinging her eyes. Perversely, the only thing saving her, was the fact that she was bound to the stake. She felt the platform begin to creak as its foundations started to give way. Her mind called out to the other half of her soul . . .

“Richard . . !”

He heard her.

Barbara and the children were in trouble. They were safe for the moment, but not for long. Not with that giant . . . whatever that was . . . snacking on anything that moved. And the interdimensional gateway that he himself opened was ready to claim its first victims . . .

The crimson-robed toadies were first. As they ran, dodging the creature spawned from the bowels of Hell, they felt themselves being lifted bodily . . . losing connection with the natural forces that glued man to the earth. They went flying, helplessly into the waiting, swirling Hell-mouth.

Richard called out to the forces of nature that held that which was true and proper in its appropriate place within the seven spheres. He called Wind . . . Earth. . . Fire . . . Rain . . . the four elements of the known universe.

Feeling himself being pulled by the whirlpool, Mordant made warding signs conjuring a spell designed to act as an anchor to keep himself safely planted to the earth.

The Wind whipped up harder and harder, until a cyclone swirled about them and swept up the crimson robes in its wake as it was sucked into the gaping Hell Gate . . . It began to pull everything not bolted down . . . Old wagon wheels, loose window shutters . . The platform! Several heavy planks came loose, and were finally yanked free. The kindling that was piled high, began flying, a hazard to the prisoners.

Richard called for a protective shield, one that like his family motto was “Constant and True.” Richard’s mind quickly formulated a near carbon copy of the one he’d destroyed; however, this one was sequenced to frequency-skip so rapidly, and at such random sequences, that the shield would not be able to discern when the changes occurred. The shield would seem to remain constant and true.

Before the shield settle over its precious charges, Richard sealed Timmy inside his own personal emerald cocoon and sent him flying through the air to a safe nook underneath the platform.

As soon as the protective bubble closed around them, it seemed to Barbara that she and children were inside the eye of the storm. For though chaos reigned outside the shield, inside they were insulated from all danger.

“Soul of my soul . . . ” Richard whispered in her mind.

“Heart of my heart . . .” she replied.

Mordant’s vile pet sensed Richard’s presence, and turned its sightless eyes in his direction, opening its gaping mouth for the kill. As it struck, serpent-fast, Richard released his stirrups and jumped free from Nightwing. Rider and mount quickly ran in opposite directions in an oft-practiced move. The creature snapped at empty air.

As Richard rolled out of danger, he quickly got to his feet and began sprinting. He felt then saw a shadow descending rapidly upon him. Turning suddenly, Richard once again called forth his oversized sword, and using his powerful will to brandish it as easily as he could his own, Richard let it fly. The emerald sword flew true to its mark and struck the creature a mortal wound. Angry, in pain, and frightened, it began lashing out at anything that moved in lightning-quick strikes.

Richard murmured the old words, and suddenly the Earth cracked wide open, swallowing the obscenity that had been awakened by Mordant’s necromancy, and returning it to its eternal sleep . . .

As the very earth moved and shifted underneath them, the Avalon army began to run. First one . . . then another . . . then it seemed as if all began screaming in panic. It appeared to them that the ground itself was preparing to swallow them all.

Wayne saw the pointlessness in trying to stop such a panicked flight, so he rode up down the lines urging them to retreat in an orderly manner.

“Remain calm . . ! Assemble in the Cheviots . . ! Remain calm . . !” His words were lost in the roars of thousands of throats crying in terror.

Angry Fire fell from the sky in the form of lightning, striking the black nothingness of the whirlpool with bolt after bolt of cleansing fire.

“Prepare to die Emerald Warrior! When I finally kill you after draining you of all your living energy, I’ll do the same with that babe, you snatched from me. Then I’ll simply take the Emerald Eye and have all of Avalon fall on her knees to me!”

With that threat hanging in the air, the evil sorcerer gestured casually. The very rocks themselves started rising and unmercifully pelting Richard seemingly of their own volition.

“Shield!” Richard cried. An emerald shield with his family motto emblazoned on it appeared immediately, blocking the missiles. Crouching behind it, Richard began to conduct a mental search for Mordant’s anchor spell. He sent out energy tendrils in multiple directions seeking the definite arcane resonance that surround such alchemy. However, Richard kept being distracted by stones that somehow evaded his shield.

As he searched, Richard felt a tiny tendril reaching out for solace–Timmy! Who was beginning to feel frightened and alone! Richard sent out a comforting thought to him.

“Nay, fear not, little one,” he said gently. “No harm will befall thee . . . this I promise.”

He felt Timmy’s answering burst of bright, happy sunshine!

“In heaven’s name . . . what was that?” Richard said, stunned.

He reached out to Timmy once more. Again, Richard felt an incredible power resonating with the purity of a child’s innocence as Timmy greeted him with happy familiarity.

“Such power in one so young . . ?” he whispered in awe. “How is it possible?”

“Aye, Emerald Warrior,” said Mordant from behind him.

Richard spun in shock. He’d been so absorbed by Timmy he’d momentarily forgotten the battle. Unforgivable! He chastised himself; how could he have been so careless? Mordant grinned, greatly amused that he’d won yet again.

“Another eon, another Emerald Warrior. An evil necromancer’s job is never done!” He paused for dramatic effect. “I think that this time, I’m going to be a little ostentatious. It is only fitting. After all, you have been a formidable enemy . . . one who almost defeated me. I’ll have to preserve this moment for the fawning masses, so that they never forget what happens to those who seek to destroy me.”

As Mordant spoke, Richard surreptitiously kept his feelers out for Mordant’s anchor spell. Closing his eyes and hanging his head as if in defeat, Richard searched for and at last found the anchor. Concentrating intently on analyzing the anchor’s energy sequences, Richard shut out Mordant’s incessant talking . . .

As Mordant finally finished his crowing, Richard slowly opened his eyes. Mordant’s own eyes narrowed. There was a new quality in Richard’s eyes, a dangerous quality. Richard looked up at him, then smiled. Mordant’s eyes widened. Richard uttered the counter spell, and Mordant found himself losing the safety lines that held him to this realm.

“No-oo-ooo! I was so close! So close . . !”

Mordant screams faded as the whirlpool claimed its final victim.

Richard threw his arms up to the sky and commanded its fires to seal the Hell Gate for all eternity . . .

As he lowered his arms, a gentle Rain began to fall . . . caressing the earth, putting out the fires, bringing a cleansing breeze to carry away the sulfurous smells from Hell . . .

The world rested in solid quietude.

Epilogue

“What God has brought together, let no man tear asunder.” Richard and Barbara gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes. “You may kiss the bride, lad,” Fra Haly whispered. Richard smiled brightly and did just that. Wallace, standing in as best man, slapped his friend between the shoulder blades. Meghan smiled happily for the young couple. Timmy yanked at Richard’s sword impatiently. He’d done his part perfectly as ring bearer, now he wanted to be picked up.

Laughing, Richard bent down and picked up his newly adopted son. Timmy planted a big wet kiss on his new father’s cheek. Richard looked bemusedly at his new son. Barbara looked upon them both with love.

They turned then and faced the gallery of friends and family, who were sitting happily in the newly restored and consecrated Melrose Abbey. Sir Richard Lord Grayson, his new bride, Lady Barbara Gordon Grayson, and their new son, Master Timothy Drake Grayson started walking down the aisle, as generations of Graysons before them had done. Husband and wife, walked arm in arm; Timmy clung proudly to his new father’s neck.

It is said that the Lady Selina caught the bridal bouquet and within the year became Lady Wayne, much to the chagrin of the countless maidens who, broken-hearted over Sir Richard’s nuptials had immediately set their caps on Lord Wayne.

Captain Sir James Gordon retired to his new lands, which had been awarded from a grateful lord for his years of loyal service and friendship, much to the delight of his daughter and new grandson.

Her Royal Highness, Princess Donna consented to becoming Sir Roy’s wife, much to the chagrin of Their Majesties. It is said that their marriage was one of heated argument, numerous break-ups, and tearful reunions. Upon their deaths they’d been married almost seventy-five years and had had nine children and countless grandchildren and great- grandchildren.

Sir Wallace returned with Sir Clark to serve on his staff with the Metropolis garrison and to act as Army liaison to the Royal Navy, thus ushering in a new era of cooperation between the two rival services. He married a common serving girl named Freyja, much to the delight of his aunt and uncle.

Prince Garth was eventually crowned King of Avalon and served his people long and faithfully. He still took an occasional swim when the mood struck him.

It is said that a bright emerald aura encompassed the young Lord Grayson and his family in a protective mantle, and that as long as he and his heirs lived and oversaw Clan Grayson, Dumfrieshire and Strathclyde, peace and prosperity reigned in the island Kingdom of Avalon, the jewel of the North Sea.

But that’s just a legend.

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THE END………….

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