Pierre Pevel - By The Alchemist in the Shadows

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JUNE 1633

It was that uncertain hour just before dawn, when the wind dies down and the mist begins to rise, the morning still a pale promise at the edge of night. A veil of dew already covered the countryside around the solitary manor, standing close to the border between Alsace and Lorraine. A great silence reigned beneath the long tattered clouds which lazed across a sky pricked with fading stars.

An elegant gentleman observed the manor from the edge of the nearby wood, watching the few lights that glowed within it. A mere shadow among the other shadows beneath the branches, he stood straight as a blade, his feet slightly spread, with his thumb tucked into his belt and one hand curled around the pommel of his sword. He was a tall handsome man. His name was Francois Reynault d'Ombreuse.

And today, in all likelihood, he would either kill a dragon or the dragon would kill him.

Behind the wall which protected the ruined manor and its outbuildings, mercenaries with tired, heavy eyes waited impatiently for the sun to rise. They leaned tiredly on their muskets or held up lanterns as they peered out into the lightening darkness, envying their sleeping comrades. They were soldiers of fortune, part of a band of thirty freebooters, who had fought and pillaged under various banners during the fifteen terrible years of war that had raged throughout the German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. Now they had been hired to escort a quiet, pale-faced gentleman whose looks and manner impressed them more than they cared to admit. They knew nothing of him except that he paid well. As

his entourage, they had crossed the Rhineland without ever pausing for long enough to unsaddle their horses, until they reached this manor. It had been abandoned for some time, but the thick outer wall and solid gate remained defensible. They had been camped here for two days now, at a safe distance from the roads and, most importantly, hidden from the Swedish and Imperial armies currently fighting for control of Upper and Lower Alsace. It seemed they would soon, secretly, cross into nearby Lorraine. Perhaps they would even visit France. But to what end? And why this halt?

Francois Reynault d'Ombreuse did not turn around when he heard someone come up behind him.

He recognised the footstep of Ponssoy, a comrade-in-arms.

'They've even posted sentries out here, in this isolated place,' Ponssoy said after counting the lanterns in the distance. 'That's more than just cautious . . .'

'Perhaps they know we're on their trail.'

'How would they know that?'

Pursing his lips doubtfully, Reynault shrugged.

The two men served in the prestigious company of the Saint Georges Guards. They wore a half-cuirass for protection and were kitted out entirely in black: wide-brimmed black hats with black plumes, black cloth doublets and breeches, black gloves and boots made of tough leather, black belts and scabbards and, last of all, black alchemical stones of shaped draconite which decorated the pommels of their rapiers. The sole exception to this martial mourning attire was the white silk sash tied about Reynault's waist, proclaiming his rank as an officer.

'It's almost time,' Ponssoy finally said.

Reynault nodded and they turned away from the old manor, plunging back into the wood.

In a clearing, the twenty-five guards who formed Reynault's detachment prayed beneath the stars.

They each placed one knee on the ground and one hand on the pommel of their sword, the other hand pressing their hat against their heart. They held a rapt silence, gathering their spirits before battle. They knew that they would not all live to see the sun set, but the prospect of such a sacrifice did not weigh heavily upon their souls.

Sceur Beatrice, also on her knees, faced the men. She belonged to the religious order they had sworn to serve, dedicated to defending France from the draconic menace. She was a Sister of Saint Georges, or a Chatelaine, as members of the order founded by Saint Marie de Chastel were commonly known. Tall, beautiful and solemn, she was not yet thirty years of age. Although dressed in white, with a veil, her attire looked as much like a young horseman's as that of a nun. The heavy cloth of her immaculate robe concealed sturdy knee-boots and she had a leather belt cinched around her waist. She even carried a rapier at her side.

After a final amen the assembly stood and dispersed,