SPAIN, FEBRUARY 1586

Armel watched as Inés Velázquez stood defiantly on the battlements. The old castle had commanded over the valley for hundreds of years, held by one power or another. Over time, its high walls had stopped the most intrepid attacks, but the nature of war had changed.

Inés wore polished armor in the Spanish style. She was known as ‘The Crow’ to her comrades in The Rising, and had led them to many victories, but she knew her luck was running out.

Spain was at war with England and her allies, but King Philip had answered the call of the Pope and mobilized an army to hunt down her band of heathen rebels. In so doing, he’d spared no expense.

Armel could see Philip’s army preparing, hundreds of white tents pitched on rolling green hills, the grass newly refreshed by winter rain. Soldiers milled around, readying their attack, their armor glinting in the sun. Engineers worked frantically on fortifications that would hold their heavy siege cannons.

The days of heroic knights had given way to gunpowder and lead. Armel knew the old castle walls would never withstand the hell that awaited them.

Modern warfare was horrific.

Inés descended from the top battlement past Armel, her armor squeaking slightly, clanking against chainmail.

She was a striking woman, a born leader, but she looked worried now, appearing much older than when he had first met her.

Armel was not a Seer, but a novice scribe. His master had helped The Rising in secret, supporting their cause for many years, passing them information, maps and literature. He had recruited others to assist their cause, believers prepared to risk their lives to end the betrayal of humanity.

The Seers were no longer alone. The Rising belonged to anyone brave enough to fight back.

“It will begin soon, Armel,” Inés said, touching him on the shoulder.

He looked into her deep brown eyes. He loved her, and he wanted her to know. She smiled back at him with kindness and understanding.

“You must leave now and take something to your master for me,” she said.

Armel went to protest, but she shushed him, holding a finger to his lips.

“We will meet our end here; it is inevitable. We are surrounded and outnumbered,” she admitted.

“I wish to stay and die by your side,” he replied.

She shook her head, her long raven hair blowing slightly in the wind.

“No, Armel, your fight is elsewhere,” she said quietly before walking away.

*

Armel heard the boom of the first shot echo around the valley, and braced himself for the impact. It didn’t come; the shell landed short. He guessed the enemy was calibrating their canons, gauging aim and distance.

He scurried along a deserted cloister, the long rays of evening sun creating alternating strips of light and dark as he passed by the stone columns.

The Seers were eating together, possibly their last meal in this life. He wanted to be with them, but felt unworthy of joining their parting feast. He felt humiliated that he would not die at their side, but his orders were to leave after dark. It seemed unfair that he would be deprived of sharing in their glorious deaths.

There were twenty Seers, all which remained of The Rising in the South. His master, Alban de Calleio of Genoa, was the only link that remained between his present company and the Seers of the North.

That was why he needed to leave.

As he crossed an empty dust-filled room, the chill of evening was already in the air. The window here had become his favorite place to sit and watch the Spanish Army prepare.

They had been there for three weeks now, cut off from food and supplies. More than two hundred Spaniards had died in the initial assault. The ill-prepared troops were no match for the Seers, but they were grossly outnumbered and unable to break out of the noose that tightened around them. The sheer force of the enemy, driven by their fear of God and financed by the Wraiths, had overpowered the Seers, forcing them to retreat to the castle.

Armel thought they should have split up long ago, but Inés had insisted in keeping her forces intact.

The events of late reminded Armel of a new game his master played, in which black and white pieces were maneuvered on a checkered board. It was called Chess, and it was a game of strategy, but it bore a striking resemblance to this war. Inés had made some bold moves and delivered some hard blows, but now she was backed into a position she could not escape from.

Checkmate.

He watched the Spanish soldiers in the fading light. Another cannon boomed, white smoke shooting out from its barrel. The floor rocked and dust fell from the ceiling as the iron ball struck stone.

It would begin in the morning.

*

Armel emerged from the tunnel, dropping his waning torch and taking in large gulps of fresh air. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been down there, but it was already growing light outside. It must have been hours.

He was filthy and soaked. The tunnel had been built hundreds of years earlier, and was clearly not maintained.

He scrambled up a bank to look around. A couple of rabbits darted away through the moist grass. There were no Spanish guards, and he felt a wave of relief. The tunnel had remained secret, and he would live to fulfill his mission.

He fell onto the dew-soaked blades of grass and let his aching body relax. He carried with him rare treasures, the original accounts of The Rising, and the Books of Mei and Ivanka. He also carried Mei’s strangely shaped sword and a bundle of letters.

Inés had entrusted them to him as they’d said their goodbyes. He had begged her to come with him, but he knew she could not. The Wraiths would have sensed a Seer traveling through the tunnel. He alone could save their legacy.

He fingered the handle of Mei’s sword, touching the strange foreign characters that were beautifully etched into the metal. An elaborate dragon curled along the length of the razor sharp blade, a flawless joining of art and death.

Now, the cannons boomed, one after the other. Plumes of smoke rose into the air. The castle was engulfed in a thick cloud of debris as its ancient battlements were torn apart.

Armel could see a group of horses leaving the castle, their armored riders holding tall spears, banners waving defiantly.

He smiled. Inés had chosen to die in battle rather than await a crushing death by falling stones. They would inflict a cruel toll on the Spaniards, but their opponent’s numbers would seal their fate in the end.

Armel did not cry. He swallowed hard, holding back his tears. He watched as they reached the Spanish lines, and then turned away. He said a prayer for the dead, but he did not direct his words to the punishing God of the Pope. He prayed to a loving God, one of morality and compassion for all creatures. From his heart, he asked that Inés and the others be remembered for their sacrifice.

He walked away with determination, carrying the sword and the writings of the Seers. He would honor Inés’ memory for as long as he lived, deciding that he would write a third book to tell her heroic story.

He would write the Book of Inés.

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