A test of honor, p.1
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       A Test of Honor, p.1

           Justin Hebert
 
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A Test of Honor


  A Test Of

  HONOR

  by: Justin Hébert

  Images, story, and characters are

  Copyright © 2014 Justin Hebert

  All rights reserved

  Cover by: Mirela Barbu

  Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

  For my mother, Sandra

  Who always believed in me

  And taught me to believe in myself.

  Table of Contents

  Part I: Homecoming

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Part II: Outlaw

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Glossary

  Author's Note

  Acknowledgements

  Part I:

  Homecoming

  Chapter 1

  "Death sometimes looms on the horizon, a constant menace to all who dare look upon it. Then there are the times it beckons, like an old friend whom you long to embrace. I'm not sure which vision fills me with greater terror."

  - Katisha Franklin, 17 Joon, 1787 AC

  As he crashed through the stained glass window, Sir Aidan worried he might miss the haystack he was certain lay below. His gut clenched with icy terror; three floors below him was bare cobblestone road. There was nothing to do but scream.

  He flailed as though trying to swim through the damp afternoon air. His full-body Kannitick Plate lined with its responsive Kevlan-padded Gambeson had protected his life during the War in the Heavens. Now it was an anchor, pulling him to the unforgiving ground as his arms swung with futility. Before his eyes, courtesy of his helm's display, floated translucent gauges all blinking red or yellow. His eyes focused on the one labeled Defense, which blinked a yellow 13 percent. The fall was quick, but time slowed in his mind. He clenched his eyes shut and prepared to hit the ground; armored or not, this was going to hurt.

  He grunted as he hit the ground with a crunching thud. When he opened his eyes, his defenses had dropped to a persistent red 0 percent. His left arm felt like the bones inside were trying to dig their way out, and as he stood his right leg erupted from within as though his thigh bone had caught fire. He swallowed a pained cry, struggling to slow his chest's heaving. Enduring in silence was both Knightly and practical. He looked up to the window he'd burst through, its stained glass depiction of King Swen III now reduced to legs propped before a throne. Smoke and dust billowed from the jagged-edged void; it wouldn't be long before his diversion cleared and they discovered his rather direct escape route.

  Stupid, stupid, stupid. No time for regrets or second guesses; he needed a horse. He was certain the stables were nearby. Slowly, with every bend of his elbow and flex of his knee, the Kannitick Plate suit was gradually coming back to life. He considered using its sensors to help locate a mount, but was concerned he might need the energy if he were set upon by Royal Guards. He gingerly unfastened the long-hafted, flanged mace that rested on his left hip and held it at the ready in case of ambush. I only need one arm to fight.

  He was outdoors, but within the Keep's circular retaining wall. He could see the peaks of small, shingled roofs just beyond the fine-lacquered wooden wall. Many, he knew, were vacant housing for visiting Nobility, but a few were owned by the wealthier merchants and artisans from the area. Sir Aidan briefly pondered scaling the wall and hiding in one of the vacants, but a bolt of fiery lightning shot through his right leg at even the slightest hint of pressure. Hiding was not an option.

  As he hobbled around the curve of the building, he spotted a flat-roofed structure with chest-high wooden walls keeping horses within. The stable! These Royal Guard stables were meant to give palace Soldiers quick access to horses for pursuit, and all of the animals were kept saddled and ready should they be needed. Only three of the five stalls held horses, and two were bulky, muscular nags built for pulling plows. The third, however, was shiny obsidian black, tall and lean. Her forward-perked ears looked to Aidan as though she were eager for a good run.

  The horse whinnied and yanked her head away at his approach, and Sir Aidan's left shoulder screamed in white-hot pain as he lurched to catch the reins. The mace, idiot. She's afraid of the mace. He slung the weapon back in its leather frog hip strap and raised his helm's faceplate to look the dark, eager creature in the eye.

  "Help me," he said, slowly offering to stroke her muzzle with his hand. The horse put her chin down and allowed him to stroke and scratch the bony bridge of her nose. He unhooked the gate, grabbed hold of the reins, and walked her over to an empty wooden apple box, which he stood on and hoisted himself onto the horse so that his stomach was across the saddle. The creature stood perfectly still as he negotiated his enflamed leg painfully over the right side and wrapped the reins around his useless left hand, the fingers of which he couldn't even feel or move.

  "He's below!" A voice called from the tower audience chamber from which he'd jumped. Took them long enough. He whipped the reins, grunting with every third beat of its gallop. His arm and leg shrieked at him at even the slightest movement, but he swallowed the pain as his training allowed. The retaining wall's open gate was manned by only two Royal Guards, and Sir Aidan charged into their backs before anyone could shout a warning, plunging himself into a dense crowd as the two Kannitick-Plated pike-wielders recovered themselves.

  The shuffling crowd parted for him as they heard the hooves clopping behind them, and he tried to casually swim the horse through the crowd to a narrow alley between buildings where he and his friends raced their steeds in the carefree days of youth. The crowd screamed, ran for the nearest open shop doors, and Sir Aidan heard someone barking commands from the Keep's gate. Taking advantage of the gap that emerged as the people fled, he spotted a narrow opening between a smith and a weaver. He jumped the horse into the narrow space, and hot Plaz discharged from what he guessed was a hastily formed firing line blasted into the wall behind him, wood and stone splintering and clacking against his armor like rain.

  There was barely enough space between the walls for his horse, and he leaned to the left to avoid bumping his shattered right leg against the walls and losing consciousness in a deluge of pain. A company of Royal Guards, their cloudy-gray armor standing out against the dark shop walls behind them, suddenly appeared at the alley's exit, but they seemed lost and didn't spare him a glance. They don't know Klauston as well as I do. He emerged from the alley behind a party of rough-looking Horsemen clad in chain mail accompanying a fat bejeweled merchant who rode on an intricately etched golden saddle and sneered at those passing him on foot.

  He followed them for two blocks without being noticed at all. Then suddenly, the crush of people who seemed to be traveling toward the market, no doubt for the evening discounts from vendors eager to clear their stock, parted and screamed as a mounted squad of five Royal Guards approached. Sir Aidan began to feel conspicuous, his Kannitick Plate noticeably finer than the rusted mail that adorned his new companions' heads and torsos. He bolted toward another alley, wide enough for two horses this time, and heard shouts of pursuit from the approaching Guards.

  He snapped the reins as quick as he could with his shattered arm, drawing his mace in his right hand and preparing his mind for com
bat. His Defense gauge was back up to 60 percent, total power at 50 percent. Worth the expense. He whispered a few commands, and new gauges appeared, as well as several red targeting reticles that searched for something to help him hit. Shouts suddenly erupted from behind him, but he paid no heed. Pulling back the reins to slow his black steed just enough to make a sharp right, nearly hit the far wall running so fast. Suddenly, Sir Aidan felt weightless as the beast leapt over a pile of refuse no doubt left by some shiftless vendor shirking Klauston's disposal tax. The landing racked his body, and he screamed through clenched teeth, but his mount didn't panic. Mace still in hand, he patted her neck and whispered compliments.

  A great crash behind him followed by the agonized screams of horse and man alike told him that his enemy's mounts hadn't been so quick to see the danger and they were paying the price. The targeting reticle suddenly became opaque and split into three, locking on the Guards that appeared on foot at the mouth of the alley, simple pikes lowered to stop his charge. He turned his mount as he pulled back the reins, praying that the animal didn't rear and give the Guards a clear shot at the beast's heart or belly. Instead, the horse turned as it stopped, and he smiled as the Pikemen advanced, spread out from one another, trying to fill the wide gap and block his escape.

  He parried two of their thrusts, and the third hit his armor but failed to find a gap to stab through, glancing away as the man tried pointlessly to force it through the Kannitick Plate. Lines intersected the circles that targeted the Guards, numbers beside them indicating the likely effectiveness of attacking from different angles. Following its instructions, he bashed that Guard on the side of his head, and the man fell to the ground. He inched the horse toward the other two, and they backed into the wall, taking a moment to reposition their pikes. He bellowed and held his mace high as though about to attack, but then whipped the horse toward the alley's exit into the street. Only a few pedestrians walked this wide dirt road in clusters of twos and threes, and he believed it was Kylee's Avenue, a long winding road that curved around like a snake from Klauston's East Gate to the Keep's West Gate.

  He galloped furiously east, praying to his House gods that the gate wasn't reinforced. The Royal Guards still hadn't appeared in the numbers he was expecting, and he wondered if the Deputy, that sack of treacherous slime, had sacrificed city patrols to bolster their presence in the Keep. But there was no time to speculate about his enemy's intentions as he bobbed quickly over the winding road, nearly trampling three different clusters of traveling companions who entered the avenue around blind corners. They may have been merchants or a street gang for all the attention he gave them; the only thing he could think about was the East Gate.

  He sighed, relieved to see only five on-duty Guards, three on the ground and two on the parapets above. He slowed his horse to a walk, hoping that word had not yet reached them of the incident with the King's Deputy. The three appeared to be telling jokes, and they leaned lazily against the open gate as they laughed and made obscene gestures.

  Sir Aidan ambled his mount past them, mace now back in its hip sling, and he held up his empty right hand as he walked by. One of the Guards, likely seeing only that he wore Kannitick Plate whose breast bore a Noble Crest, nodded, and Sir Aidan and his mount strolled under the thick tunnel, idle chatter from the Guards who walked on the grate above him echoing like the chirping of small birds in the woods. He once asked his father why there was a floor grate above the entrance tunnels, and his father had told him the stories of old, how the enemies of the Crown were scorched with boiling oil and heated sand if they tried to enter by the city's gates. Aidan was frightened by the story at first, but now it brought him some strange comfort, remembering his father. My late father.

  There were two places he could go: Graydon Forest or the Wishon Estate. Duke Deumar of Wishon was a longtime ally to Sir Aidan's family, House Franklin. The man had no doubt taken a great risk and spent a considerable sum to get the message delivered to him, which he now had tucked away in a storage space within his left gauntlet.

  It is my sad duty as friend of your House to inform you that your Father and siblings joined the Ancestors two years past. Come see me when the matters of your Estate are settled.

  When his tears had dried, he found himself haunted by questions. He wondered first why the message had come while he was still being debriefed at Yanshee Station only three days ago, and why he wasn't informed when they actually died. There was only one answer: Someone didn't want me to know. Sir Aidan also believed, because the letter mentioned settling affairs of his family's estate, that there was some problem with the succession of Barrowdown. When he discovered that Lord Meadows had been elevated to King's Deputy, he knew the answer.

  The moment his horse stepped foot on the grass that grew just outside the gatehouse tunnel, shouts suddenly erupted behind them, and Sir Aidan whipped the reins, dashing for the forest's tree line at a speed that felt to him as quickly as he had fallen from the window. Grass and dirt erupted in tufts and muddy clumps to his right, purple fire scorching the soil on which they had grown. Plaz! He wove across the open field, zigzagging his way to the forest, more fiery-purple Plaz demolishing the landscape around him. One shot was so close he felt its heat, but it slammed straight into the base of a young but tall oak, which fell just behind Sir Aidan and disrupted the pursuers behind him.

  He leapt over a root system that jutted from the soft, mossy soil beneath, and heard another explosive impact of Plaz behind him. He expected the Guards to pursue him into the woods, but they stopped and stared at the tree line. Graydon Forest was growing dark with the approaching night, but he wondered why they didn't simply use their helm's greenvision to see through the dark and give chase. Whatever their reasons, they circled their horses around and rode back to Klauston.

  Sir Aidan breathed in the forest air, rich with clover and orange blossom, and fell into a coughing fit as he exhaled. His eyes felt as though his head were inflating, his torso as though it were filled with molten rock. He breathed slowly and closed his eyes for control. He had experienced Rebirth many times on the battlefields of New Mongolia but always in a safe place, away from potential enemies. His blood turned to ice, and he knew that soon he would be shaking from the cold. He had to find shelter.

  Something caught his eye in the distance: A cluster of large trees grown so close that their trunks had merged. Can it be? He trotted his steed to the cluster, slowing his breathing to buy time. The clump was about as big around as a castle tower and had a single solid trunk that branched into full-grown giant sequoias that stretched high into the air, disappearing in the dense canopy overhead. He circled the structure, the pain wracking his body becoming unbearable, and found what he was looking for: An encircled tulip carved deep over where the trunk split into a deep-black cavern. It matched the Crest embossed on the left breast of his Kannitick Plate; the Crest of House Franklin.

  He attempted an orderly dismount, but tumbled off and sprawled on the ground, grunting both from the fall and the magics planted within him by his Feudalist compatriots on New Mongolia. He closed his eyes, determined to keep himself long enough to find safety, overcome by pain both physical and emotional from the day's events. He felt consciousness fading when something nudged his head and snorted.

  His stolen horse gave him a friendly, concerned gaze. The steed nudged him again, and the warmth he felt at the creature's kindness gave him the strength to clamber up the base of the tree cluster and find adequate footing on his one unbroken leg. He whispered a command that switched his vision to the green glow that made things visible in the dark, and led the black steed through the narrow entry to what he knew was a large, hollow space under the trees.

  He stumbled and fell as the horse entered the wooden cavern, and this time no amount of nudging would wake him. He would sleep until the magics had done their work. He grunted and groaned as though being beaten, icy fingers weaving his bones together and shoving his muscle fibers back into place. The world was swallow
ed by darkness.

 
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