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Morgaine and Michael [The Chronicles of Morgaine the Witch 1] [MultiFormat]
eBook by Joe Vadalma

eBook Category: Dark Fantasy/Romance
eBook Description: WITCHES, DEMONS, WARLOCKS -- AND MORE IN THIS BRILLIANT ROMANTIC FANTASY SERIES! When Melody meets Michael, a psychic, it is love at first sight. But when she meets his circle of friends and associates, Melody feels like an outsider. Then Michael gives her a strange ancient manuscript to read about a young knight's experiences in medieval times. There the knight, also named Michael, running from a battle makes love to a witch named Morgaine, and through her meets a wizard who promises him immortality in return for his services as a slave. They journey to Egypt, where Michael meets the demon, Asmodeus, who grants immortality and other magical gifts in return for Michael's soul. Melody does not know what to make of the manuscript, and is even more confused when a mysterious woman named Morgaine arrives and asks for Michael. Still feeling an outsider, Melody tries to see if she can fit in among Michael's friends and associates, decides to join the women in something called Tantric exercises, which she discovers is sexually oriented magic. But when she sees the leader of the group float in the air, Melody runs out of the house, wondering what she has let herself in for by falling in love with the famous psychic. Little does she dream of the part Michael and Morgaine have planned for her in the future. Joe Vadalma begins a stunning career as a fantasy novelist with this sexy six-part saga of a witch, a warlock, a demon, and their loves and conflicts through the ages. Rated Mature. Some sexual content. Cover: Sami Hursey

eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2012




CHAPTER 1

WALKING IN THE WOOD

Moonlight cast a mottled silver glow on the narrow path. It was night, very late, and I was wandering through the woods alone. Alone and lost. In my mind the surrounding black and mysterious forest seemed filled with wicked fairies and evil night creatures. I rubbed my arms with my hands against the light October breeze that chilled me through the thin material of my nightgown. My bare feet slid and slipped on damp, musty leaves. An awful stillness, the quiet of a tomb, hung over the forest. No insect buzzed, no bird sang, no animal scurried across my path. The silence amplified and made terrifying the sound of my own breathing, the thump-thump of my heart and the sharp crack of twigs breaking underfoot.

Not only was I lost, but I was not even sure where I had intended to go. I could not recall why I had come to the woods so late and in such a state of undress. Yet somehow I had a feeling, a premonition, that I was about to make a wonderful yet terrifying discovery.

After a while I felt the presence of others, although I neither heard nor saw their approach. I could not imagine who else would be in the woods in the wee hours. Yet I didn't feel threatened. The idea came into my mind that whoever these people were, they were not to be feared, that they were gathering to experience some marvelous event.

I stepped from the dark woods into a circular meadow which the moon had magically transformed into an arena of silver enchantment and soft shadows. The others appeared from every section of the wood, women and men in ankle-length white robes. I gazed about, hoping to spot a familiar face -- but they were all strangers. Strangers perhaps, but kindly strangers, who, although no word passed between us, welcomed me with smiles and nods. Beautiful classical music surrounded us, a light and airy tune played by flute, strings and harp.

As if by a secret prearranged signal, all at one time shrugged off their garments and stood naked in the moonlight. At first I was abashed and uncomfortable, but since nudity seemed important to what was to take place, my inhibitions left me. Without shame, I let fall my nightgown and joined hands with these strangers to form a circle. At that moment they started to dance like children around a May pole. Although the steps and figures were intricate and unfamiliar, I followed along with ease. I became exhilarated, laughing and gay, intoxicated. Oddly, dancing naked in the moonlight with strangers seemed both delightful and enchanting. Who would believe that I could do such a thing? Yet there I was.

After awhile the beat of the music changed, becoming wild and strange, the dance frenzied. People paired off -- men with women, men with other men and women with other women. We gyrated in erotic ways. I became caught up in the mad, macabre whirling. Later I could not recall what my partner looked like. The insane revel went on until I became breathless.

As it climaxed, with everyone spinning like a top, I opened my eyes to the ceiling in my bedroom. My clock radio was blasting rock-and-roll into my ear. It was time to get up to go to work.

It had been such a strange and vivid dream that for a while I stayed in bed thinking about it. I recalled in exquisite detail my emotions, sounds and even odors. Such a vivid dream had to have a hidden meaning. I resolved to ask my friend, Betty, who was into the occult big time, about it.

I had contemplated the dream so long that I had to rush through my shower and breakfast and skipped my usual yoga and meditation.

I did not talk to Betty until lunch. My duties as an assistant editor at a downtown publishing firm kept me too busy to chat with her over the phone for a few minutes. The editor is nice, but piles on the work. I'm also responsible for taking down telephone messages, kicking the copier or fax machine into operation and placating authors and agents.

Around eleven, Betty called, and we agreed to meet at a nearby coffee shop. As I said before, Betty is into everything paranormal -- astrology, psychic phenomenon, UFOs. Some things I believe; other things I'm sure are pure hogwash. Betty, however, accepts everything written in the tabloids about the supernatural as gospel.

At the coffee shop I ordered a chef's salad, and Betty had a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. The moment the waitress left to fill our orders, I told Betty about my dream. She became excited and agitated, talking fast and loud. "It's definitely an omen. No doubt about it. There are no coincidences. Michael Ellul is in town, and he's giving away free readings to..."

"Whoa. Slow down. First, who the heck is Michael El-lulu or whatever you called him? And what has he got to do with my dream?"

"Oh. I forget. You don't read the astrology magazines. There are articles about him all the time." Betty buys a couple of astrology magazines every month and subscribes to periodicals about psychic and UFO phenomena. Although I believe in the paranormal, because of a bad incident years ago, I'm no longer into it all that much. Once in awhile I'll pick up an astrology magazine, and of course, I check my horoscope in the daily newspaper. "And his last name is not El-lulu. It's Ellul. It's French I think. Anyway, he's famous. At least among believers in the psychic dimension. Some people even say that he's a wizard. They call him The Enchanter. Anyway, he's in town on a lecture tour."

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, after every lecture, he holds a drawing. The five winners receive a free private reading. Usually he only does private readings for millionaires and movie stars. Don't you see? If you win, you could tell him about your dream. He would interpret it."

"You mean that besides being an astrologer, he explains the meaning of dreams?"

"Well, uh, I'm not positive about that. But I know he's into a lot of different psychic stuff. Why not dream interpretation?"

I laughed. "You're a piece of work, Betty. You think that if I go to this Ellul's lecture, that I'm sure to win a free reading. And, although nobody ever said he interpreted dreams, that he'd do it for me. Besides, even if all this occurred just as you said, how do I know he won't just give me a lot of bull?"

"Oh, don't be so cynical. You sound like a skeptical nonbeliever. You do think that your dream was a message from the psychic dimension, don't you?"

"Perhaps. Only because it's so clear and distinct in my memory."

"See. Go to Doctor Ellul's lecture. What can you lose except an evening you'd probably spend watching sitcoms?"

"Are you going?"

"I wish I could, but I promised my sister I'd baby-sit Saturday. Wait, I cut out the ad." She handed me a newspaper clipping.

The waitress arrived with our orders. Although I had no intention of going to Ellul's lecture, I stuffed the ad into my purse to humor Betty. During the rest of the meal we gossiped about trivial matters, and I forgot the whole incident -- although I did think about my dream and wondered what it meant.

The Saturday of Ellul's lecture I had a date with a man I was not overly enthralled with. When he called on Friday to break the date, I wasn't disappointed. I decided it would be a good time to catch up on my reading. But when Saturday evening came, I was restless and felt like going out. Then I remembered the lecture. I fished out the ad Betty had given me and read it over. It sounded interesting enough, so I shrugged and told myself, "What can I lose? I'd be bored out of mind hanging around the apartment tonight."

Because it was at a downtown hotel, I dolled up a little, not too fancy, but not casual either. I wore a black cocktail dress with a square neckline, a pearl necklace, matching earrings and a spring coat. It's probably what I would've worn had I gone on that date. I dabbed on a few drops of a new perfume someone had given me and examined myself in the mirror. Feeling satisfied with my appearance, I left.

After I found the banquet room where the lecture was being held, I was glad I had dressed up. Several other ladies standing around the lobby had on their finest. Since hotel employees were still unfolding chairs and removing tables to turn the room into a lecture hall, I bought a ticket and strolled around the lobby peering into the windows of closed shops until the growing crowd was allowed into the room. The doorman who tore my ticket told me to save the stub for the drawing.

I sat three rows back from stage on the aisle where I had a good view, but could make a quick getaway in case the speaker was boring. As people poured through the double-doors, I began to question my motives in attending. Was it simple curiosity? Or was I becoming afraid of my own company? Then I recalled what Betty had said and chuckled. Did I really believe that I would win a free reading with this famous psychic?

Ellul sauntered to the podium to a scattering of light applause. He was tall, well-dressed and exceptionally handsome in a rugged masculine way. His warm smile showed deep lines etched around his mouth and eyes. Although his shoulder-length hair and neatly-trimmed beard were salted with gray, in other ways he appeared quite youthful.

Before he began to speak, his eyes roamed over the audience, perhaps counting the take. I was immediately struck by them. They were the most penetrating that I'd ever seen, pale blue, with heavy brows and a little sunken. At the time they seemed almost inhuman, as though they belonged on some alien from outer space. But that was completely wrong. His eyes were like everyone else's except that the way he looked through them was different, absolutely steady, ardent, quiet and powerful. As those strange eyes met mine in that one-second glance, a deep shiver went up my spine. He seemed to be sending me a message. But I figured that every woman in the audience was receiving the same message.

His lecture was not especially interesting. He simply explained the basic terminology and summarized the history of astrology. I had heard or read about most of what his talk was about many times before. Nonetheless, because he was attractive and spoke in a deep baritone, I gave him my full attention. At times I was sure his remarks were directed to me alone in as much as those wonderful eyes fell on me quite often. Again I assumed that half the women in the audience thought the same thing. I was sure that his physical attributes and ability to spellbind are what accounted for his popularity. I imagined that many women worshipped him as a god. I recalled the reverence in Betty's voice when she spoke of him.

One thing in his lecture struck me as being different from most astrologers. He said, "Although I have a great interest in the paranormal, I am also a great believer in science and the scientific method. Astrology has been scoffed at by astronomers and other scientists who say that the planets and stars are simply bodies revolving in space, that the constellations of the zodiac would look completely different from another perspective and that the path of the sun through these constellations is simply an illusion caused by the movement of the earth as it goes around the sun.

"I agree completely." He paused for effect. Many in the audience let out a disapproving gasp. "Nevertheless, astrology is valid. For I believe that our fates are predetermined at birth. The symbols of astrology simply give us a methodology for determining the possible futures that await us. The movements of the planets in the solar system among the so-called fixed stars act as a giant clockwork upon which our lives are measured."

When Ellul finished, despite his unorthodox views, the audience clapped enthusiastically. After the applause died down, a woman came to the podium and announced the drawing. Ticket stubs were placed in a shoe box and churned around. Ellul, with his head turned to the side, drew the tickets and called out numbers. When my number was not among the first four, I started down the aisle in hopes of beating the rush out of the hall. A few steps from the exit, I heard Ellul's magnificent baritone voice call out my number. Betty's premonition or wish had come true. I waited around until the woman, whom I assumed was Ellul's personal assistant, gave the winners appointment cards with his hotel room number penciled in.

That night I had the dream again. It was almost the identical to the first dream except that this time I recalled the face of my partner in the dance. It was Ellul. As we danced, his penetrating eyes grew larger and larger until just before I woke up they were all I could see, staring deep into my soul, penetrating me, delving into my inner being.

As I shook the sleep from head, I wondered whether I had developed a crush on the astrologer. "Melody, don't be an idiot," I said aloud. "Why would that rich, handsome, famous man give you a second glance?"

I thought, Maybe it's not a good idea to go to the reading. I'll probably make a fool of myself and die of embarrassment.

Nonetheless, I went. When I told Betty that I had won the drawing, she was so excited that I couldn't bear to disappoint her by backing out. Ellul's assistant ushered me through his suite to a room set up as an office. As we passed through the sitting room, I mentally whistled. I often wondered what one of those thousand-dollar-a-night suites was like. Believe me, they are luxurious.

Ellul rose from behind a large oak desk, stepped around the furniture, took my hand and pressed my finger tips to his lips in the continental fashion. "Welcome Miss, or is it Mrs. Trent. Please have a seat." He had a slight accent, a sort a guttural French as though he had been born on the border of France and Germany and couldn't make up his mind which language to speak.

I blushed. It's seldom you run into such old world charm. From this attractive man, it was almost too much. I folded myself into an easy chair. "Mrs. But I'm no longer married. I'm a widow."

He sat on the corner of the desk swinging a foot. "Oh, I'm sorry."

"Thank you, Doctor Ellul. He died a long time ago. Although I still love and miss him, I'm over the grieving part and have learned to get on with my life."

His wide grin told me that he had hoped for such a reply. "Michael please. I'm not one for a lot of formality. And frankly, I don't really have a Ph. D. in anything. I just call myself Doctor Ellul to impress."

"Okay Michael. And you may call me Melody." I hoped that my racing heart didn't cause me to automatically bat my eyelashes at him.

"Melody. What a charming name! Well, shall we get down to business? Have you ever had your horoscope done before?"

"Once. When I was twelve. My aunt did it. She was a..." I hesitated. I almost said fortune teller. "...psychic by profession. In Florida."

"Really? What's her name? I know psychics in Florida."

"Jennifer Roberts."

He thought for a moment before shaking his head. "I'm afraid I don't know her."

"I didn't think you would. She had only a small clientele. She passed away recently."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Were you close?"

"Yes. She practically raised me after my parents died."

He withdrew a notebook from his breast pocket. "Well I guess you know the routine. I need to know your birthday and the time of your birth as closely as possible. Offhand I would say that your sun sign is Gemini. You seem so perceptive and all together."

"Your guess is right on the button. And I came prepared. When Aunt Jen did my horoscope years ago, I saved it. Yesterday, I dug it out of my stack of memorabilia and copied the hour of my birth."

After he put the information in his notebook with a fancy gold pen, he said, "I'll need your phone number so that I can notify you when it's ready."

"Oh. You're not going to do it right away."

"To do a horoscope properly requires a lot of consideration and research. I'd rather work on it in private and do a thorough job. I hope you don't mind."

"No, that's fine." I gave him my phone number. After a few moments hesitation, I asked, "Uh, do you interpret dreams?" Betty would never forgive me if I didn't mention my dream.

"No, I'm afraid I don't. Why? Is one troubling you?"

"Yes. I've had it twice now, and I recall every facet of it very distinctly."

"You know, when I have a dream or a hunch or some other idea that strikes me as a psychic message, I usually consult the Tarot. Are you familiar with Tarot cards?"

"To some extent. My aunt had a deck she used in her business. My friend Betty has a deck too."

"If you like, after I prepare your horoscope, I'll give you a reading."

I became suspicious. Was this a con? First offer a free horoscope reading, and then talk the client into having her fortune told with cards -- for a price. "Well um, I'm not sure ..." I felt I should turn his offer down flat but hesitated, because, for one, he intrigued me as a man, and two, I did want to find out what my dream meant.

Those fascinating eyes tore into me as though he was reading my mind. "If you're wondering whether there'll be a charge for the reading, believe me, I never ask for money. Some people are kind enough to make a donation, but in your case, I wouldn't accept it. I can see that this dream has you worried, and I'd like to help." He smiled in an irresistible manner.

"Well, okay. Why not? You're going to call?" I got up to leave.

"In a couple of days. I'll be done with your horoscope by then. Uh Melody, would you mind telling me what you do for a living?"

"Not at all. I'm an assistant editor at a local publishing house. They publish paperback genre fiction. I work with the Fantasy editor."

"That's wonderful. I knew it. I had a premonition the first time I laid eyes on you. Fate has led you to my door."

"What do you mean?"

"Well I've written a work of fantasy fiction, but I don't want to show it to my regular publisher who only does books on the occult. I'd like you to take the manuscript and tell me whether it's publishable. I'll pay you for the effort. Say a thousand dollars to read it and give me a detailed critique?"

"Oh my gosh. That would be way too much. Look, I don't mind doing it for nothing -- as a donation for the Tarot reading."

"I couldn't let you do that. It's a novel length piece. Please name a price."

I could tell that he would insist on paying, so I said, "Okay, I'll let you know after I've looked it over. One thing though -- I can't critique it in just a couple of days, not if you want me to read the entire manuscript."

"I wouldn't expect you to. Take your time. This book is a hobby with me. I never really expect to get it published."

"Okay, it's a deal." We shook hands, and he handed a cardboard carton to me.

As I walked toward the door, he said, "Au revoir, Melody."

"Good afternoon, Michael."

That evening I browsed through his manuscript, which had been done on a computer. It seemed to be a high fantasy novel set in the year one thousand. At least it wasn't one of those Arthurian legends or a "Lord of the Rings" clone. I was tired of them, and I suspected so was the public. I decided to read the first chapter through. I plugged in my laptop to take notes, curled up in my favorite easy chair and turned to the first page.

"There was a young man who lived in what are now called The Medieval Period. The year was nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine Anno Domini of the Julian calendar. It was a cold winter night in Saxony on the eve of a new millennium..."

* * * *

CHAPTER 2

MILLENNIUM

...it was a cold winter's night in Saxony on the eve of the year one thousand Anno Domini. A young man named Michael, a noble and a knight's squire, the vassal of Margrave Heinrich of Eilenberg, knelt in the cold, drafty chapel in the emperor's palace at Aix-la-Chapelle and shivered. The house of worship was crowded with men of war and of the cloth, all hoping for the Lord's blessing. Shoulders on either side brushed Michael as they prayed. A terrible foe from the north, Normans, had invaded the Holy Roman Empire from the sea. On this eve of a new millennium, a great battle was to be fought. Some said that it signaled the Armageddon, the final conflict between good and evil, Gog and Magog warring against Holy Christians, Satin's minions descending upon the Holy Roman Empire in a struggle to the death.

"Armageddon." The archbishop, His Majesty Otto's own confessor, had used the word in his sermon at high mass. The word conjured up phantasmagorian images in Michael's mind of hordes of monstrous demons screaming horrible curses as they attacked while he fended them off with a broadsword.

Another thought crossed Michael's mind as he knelt on the frost-damp stone floor; that this was the end of the world. After the final battle, Lord Jesus, his Savior would descend from heaven to judge the quick and the dead. And what if he, Michael, had committed a mortal sin for which he would he be thrown into the fiery pit to burn for all time?

He reviewed his life, all eighteen years of it, and realized he had committed many sins. Just last week, there had been that servant girl... He prayed hard for comfort, guidance and forgiveness as his eyes rose to the huge crucifix behind the altar. The blood that streamed from His crown of thorns, His wounded palms, His crossed feet, the gore oozing from His side, all seemed real, as though He was present in the flesh as well as spirit as He frowned down upon Michael, sinner and coward. Yes, coward. Michael had been told over and over by his betters that in the coming battle he must be ready to sacrifice his life, his most precious life, for Margrave Heinrich, for Emperor Otto, for the Holy Roman Empire, for the Almighty. Unlike the lust for combat and glory that his companions, and even he, himself, professed aloud, Michael feared death. He desperately wanted a full, joy-filled lusty life. At times, when the idea of his own demise crossed his mind, he felt a great cold as though Death had already laid his icy hand on him.

Candles lit the chapel but dimly. All the sounds were soft ones, monks chanting, the murmur of men praying, the occasional bark of a cough, the slow drip of melting frost, the heavy breathing of the exhausted, the clink of armor as men shifted position, occasional snoring.

After a while Michael's own eyelids became heavy and his thoughts dull. Earlier that day he and other vassals of Margrave Heinrich had rode hard across the snow-blanketed Saxony plains. A bitter wind had swept in from the north, whipping the fallen snow into blinding white sheets. Nonetheless, the men were lighthearted, joking, bragging, horse playing and did not speak of the coming battle except in a jocular vein. Even Michael.

It was after he heard the archbishop's sermon and had a chance to reflect that soon he could be in heaven or hell that dread began to eat at him. Even these fears faded as exhaustion overcame him. With his head resting on his bent knee, he dreamt that he was on an orange-hued plain of vast dimensions surrounded by fire. A lion leaped from the flames, bounded toward him, halted and roared loudly, but did not attack. Next, a Cherubim appeared in the sky and flew down to land at his feet. This most curious creature had large wings, a human head and a lion's face. It said, "What thou dread shall come within a hairsbreadth, but ye shall be spared. A kin wilt be taken in thee place." Far off a bell tolled.

He opened his eyes. He had been awakened by Matins. It was the hour before morningtide. Soft light crept in from the chapel's high narrow windows, giving a hazy glow to his surroundings. The chanting of monks made his crossing from the world of phantoms mystical and portentous. When he reflected on his dream, he interpreted it as meaning that his place in heaven was assured. He found out differently later. The dream was a prophesy.

He and the other knights were quartered in the castle for the remainder of the storm-filled winter. While Michael abided there, he was kept busy polishing armor, practicing swordsmanship and faithfully performing other tasks assigned to him. All during that time, his strange dream, the archbishop's words and what lay in store for him beyond the grave weighed on his mind.

Spring followed winter only too swiftly. Late in May, Gog and Magog were ready to do battle. The last battle, as Michael thought of it as he nervously awaited the dawn on a small rise at one end of a grass-covered, hilly plain surrounded by dense forest. At the other end of the meadow, in the dark of the early morning hours, the Norman campfires and torches were flickering sparks. The earth between was uneven with several small hillocks.

The sun rose bright and a warm, and a gentle breeze wafted over the plain. Some brush, saplings and berry bushes grew in a sea of tall grass, nettles and poppies that rippled in waves. Clouds in the shape of dragons and giants drifted across an otherwise clear blue expanse. Ravens and robins fluttered about, landing at times to peck at unseen objects in the grass. Hardly a whisper of sound disturbed the pastoral scene, only the sighing breeze, cawing of the ravens, nickering of horses and metallic clink of armor as men mounted their steeds.

While Michael gazed out at this peaceful panorama, this second Eden, steeling himself for battle, his heart thumped wildly against his breast. Because it was his first battle, he did not know what to expect. He raised his eyes to the enemy camp. So far away, the foe seemed diminutive. Sunlight sparkled on their armor like the light of glowworms on a summer eve. It seemed strange that in a few moments, he would ride toward them with murderous intent. And what was terrifying to the extreme -- that they would be rushing forward to send him to his own cold grave.

The young boys beat the drums in a slow strident tattoo. The standard bearer raised the margrave's colors. In the manner that Michael had practiced for so long and so hard, he raised his lance in unison with his fellows and dug his heel into his mount's flank. In formation with the others, his steed walked slowly forward as though parading before the margrave.

Michael glanced about. Villein foot soldiers, without armor, in dark peasant's garb and carrying pikes and battle axes, stepped lively to keep pace with the mounted knights, their legs pumping up and down in time with the cadence. Michael noted that more than one crossed himself or made a mystical sign to a pagan god as he strode forth. Ahead, the Normans approached in a like manner.

As Michael rode into a shallow dell between hillocks, the drummers beat a faster cadence. He urged his mount into a trot. At the top of the rise, the enemy was a scant fifty yards away. Now he could see the Normans clearly. They were tall, more than a head taller than most Saxons, with long blond hair twisted into braids that lay on their chest or back. Such giants could not be real men, but must be demons. At a distance their faces seemed death heads. Cold terror washed over him like the icy flow of the Leine River in March.

The Norman front line was a wall of archers. They halted, drew and shot. Arrows sprayed among Michael's troop like wind driven hail. Piercing screams rent the air. On every side, Michael's companions fell to spatter their blood on the earth. With a swift kick he broke his stallion into a gallop. The next moment he was in the thick of battle surrounded by an eerie high-pitched roar such as one would hear in the fiery regions of hell; battle cries of conflicting armies, screams of the wounded and dying, nickering of fright-maddened horses and the clanking of metal against metal. Moments became hours. His senses were heightened to such an intensity that the cries and grunts of men in battle blasted into his ears like trumpets, and the horseflesh beneath him chafed him raw.

Before Michael could ram his pike into his first enemy, his steed reared, struck by Norman steel. The world wheeled and the ground struck him in the back painfully with an audible thump, collapsing his lungs so that for several precious moments he could not breath. As he struggled to his feet, off-balance and unprepared, a silver-haired Norman giant bore down on him screaming his terrible war cry and whirling an enormous battle-ax above his head. Michael was helpless as a crippled child. He could do nothing but look into the awful face of death in the form of a blond demon.

But, as the Norman leaned over to separate Michael's head from his shoulders, Michael's older brother Claus, who had been on Michael's right hand and slightly to his rear, speared the Norman giant through the heart and rode on. Michael's terror at his narrow escape from death paralyzed him for long moments. Then panic took over. He dropped his sword and shield and ran, not stopping until he was well into the woods.

Stumbling and gasping, he sank to the forest floor and wept. A rush of thoughts and memories went through his mind with blinding speed. He was a devout Christian, loyal to Margrave Heinrich his master and Emperor Otto, but fear of death had placed doubts in his mind. What if the religion he had been taught was nonsense? What if death was the end, and all he would become was a rotted corpse? To face such a fate out of loyalty to leaders, who after all were men like himself, seemed madness.

On the other hand, he knew that he was disgraced, a craven coward who had run from battle. When he returned, he would be punished, hanged or worse. How ironic, to escape death in battle only to be strung up on a gallows like a common criminal. If he returned to the fray quickly, that ignoble fate would be spared him. But he could not. He shuddered as he recalled what had almost befallen him. Terror shook his body in spasms. It paralyzed him, drove every other thought and emotion from his mind. The heaven that he had believed in so faithfully all his life suddenly seemed a Chimera; only darkness and nothingness, forever and forever, was to be his fate. Or worse, he would fall into the abyss to burn in hell for an eternity. He became obsessed by a single conscious emotion, the horror of his personal death.

Thus, he cowered in the woods until nightfall, finally falling asleep under an elm.

When he awoke, it was midmorning. Beyond the woods in the direction of yesterday's battlefield, the sounds of battle had been replaced by a great cawing of ravens. Slowly he crept with aching muscles from the damp ground to the edge of the forest to peer out at a horrific scene. What, before the fighting had begun, had been waving grass and wildflowers was now churned up earth stained with blood and heaps of bodies. And ravens, many many ravens, flocks and flocks of them. Their loud caws pierced his heart with dread as they summoned more of their fellows to the great feast of the fallen. Riderless horses roamed about the meadow searching for the ghosts of the men who had ridden them into battle.

Michael walked out into this plain of death. The stench was unbelievable, the air thick with the sickly scent of rotting meat. He wound a kerchief about his face to dull the odor and returned to the spot where he almost died, threading a winding path among the corpses. He could not tell by the numbers who had won, only that the slaughter had been terrible on both sides, as Norman and Saxon lay side by side, sometimes caressing their former enemy in death with an out flung arm of forgiveness for taking their God-given life. Most horrible were the dismembered body parts. Michael stepped on an unattached hand and stumbled as he quickly withdrew his foot. In a momentary fit of pique, he kicked it away.

He found his sword and shield where he had dropped them. He picked up the weapon and returned it to his scabbard. The shield he let lay. He gazed for a moment at the corpse of the Norman who had almost killed him. In death, the man no longer appeared fearsome, and Michael almost felt sorry for him.

For a long time he wandered about gazing at the dead. Some had faces that he knew -- boys and men who had been his companions for years. Never again would they drink toasts and brag about sexual conquests with him. Now they were only meals for ravens and worms.

Finally he came upon a decapitated human head. Hardened now, he was about to shove it out of the way with his toe, but something familiar about it made him stop. Instead he turned it over with the tip of his sword. When he saw its face, he let out a loud moan and wept. It was his brother Claus. Claus had suffered the fate from which he had saved Michael.

Michael knew that he dared not stay in the field any longer. Soon villeins would return to bury the dead. As a coward who had run from the battle, he was an outlaw. He captured one of the horses, choosing carefully one with a good strong saddle and bridal. He would be doing a lot of riding.

With no destination in mind, except away from where the margrave and his men could find him, he rode into the wilderness.


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