It is a fact, then, that in the heart of every man there lies a beast which only waits for an opportunity to storm and rage, in its desire to inflict pain on others, or, if they stand in his way, to kill them...

-Arthur Schopenhauer


Chapter I


The Jongleur at the Inn

Mazael Cravenlock saw the apple trees and smiled.

He put spurs to his horse, a sturdy old gray palfrey named Mantle, and rode for the trees, ignoring Gerald's cry of protest. The setting sun painted the grass a deep crimson and the hot, dry wind of the Marches tugged at Mazael’s cloak and whipped at his face, but he was used to it. He had grown up here, after all.

The apple trees rose at the shore of a clear pond, encircled by a low stone wall. Nearby stood a crumbling brick chimney and some foundation stones, all that remained of a small peasant house. The inhabitants of that house had likely been killed fifteen years past during Lord Richard Mandragon’s uprising against Lord Adalon Cravenlock. No one had claimed the land since then, to judge from the tall grass covering the old foundation.

Mazael steered Mantle through the low wall's fallen gate and reined up beneath a tree. The apples hung heavy and red from their blossoms, and he plucked one with a gloved hand and took a bite.

“Sir Mazael!”

Mazael turned his saddle, chewing, and watched Sir Gerald Roland and his squire Wesson ride through the ruined gate. Gerald had inherited the aquiline features, blue eyes, and muscular body of his father. His shoulder-length hair shone like gold, and he had recently grown a mustache that he attended with the fanaticism of an Cirstarcian monk. Gerald was not wearing any armor - Mazael could have thrown his dagger and killed Gerald before the younger man could react.

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