Cold Moonlight Fire
Chapter 1: Rostoke Manor
The storm was worsening as Brynna Morgaine reached the end of the track leading up to the small manor house. Dezolis, the third planet in the Algo solar system, was a cold planet of snow and ice but one of predictable weather patterns. This storm had come up out of nowhere and had taken Bryn completely by surprise. Fortunately, her goal was in sight, and she could make out its shape through the driving snow.
Rostoke Manor was a tall building for Dezolis, two stories plus an attic level beneath its sharply gabled roof. Several chimneys thrust up from the roof at different points. Icicles hung from the eaves, but the glow cast from various windows was inviting, a beacon of warmth and respite from the blizzard. Bryn hugged her cloak more tightly about her, its lining of owltalon feathers trapping body heat inside as she forced herself through the last hundred feet to the front door.
A wooden bell-push was set into the wall to the left of the door. Bryn pressed the panel and a moment later the door opened.
"Is this Rostoke Manor?"
"Aye, that it is. You'd better come in; a night like this is fit for no one."
The servant at the door stood aside. He was in his mid-fifties, with gray well peppered throughout his black hair and beard. Bryn stepped into the simple foyer and unslung her bowgun, then removed her cloak, unsnapped the quiver of arrows from her belt, took off her overboots, and then finally removed her jacket. The servant showed her where to hang her winter garments, and took her weapons without saying anything more, but his eyes never left her.
The look was not one of masculine appreciation. Bryn had gotten her share of those and knew them. At five feet, nine inches she was tall for a woman, and the confidence she projected in her manner tended to draw attention despite the fact that her features were a bit strong for beauty—a handsome woman, but not a beautiful one. She wore a white shirt with a spray of lace at the throat and wrists, black breeches tucked into knee-high boots polished to a high gloss, while a gold-embroidered black vest cross-laced down the front and a hand-tooled leather sheath for her belt knife completed her ensemble. Despite her liking for frills in her clothing, she wore only two pieces of jewelry, a plain silver band on her right ring finger and an engraved gold clip that held her unruly honey-blond curls back in a loose ponytail that fell to mid-back. Smoky gray eyes calmly met the doorman's look.
"My name is Brynna Morgaine. Mr. Rostoke should be expecting me."
"Expecting you, is he?"
She took a folded letter from her belt pouch and handed it to the servant.
"You can see there that I was invited to come."
The grizzled man studied the letter solemnly, then nodded.
"Come along, then. The others are waiting for you in the library."
"The others?" Bryn asked in surprise, but received no answer. The man simply turned and beckoned her to follow.
There was no "great hall" beyond the foyer; instead the servant led Bryn through paneled corridors lit by oil lamps set in recesses in the walls to a large room. Bookshelves lined the walls from the parquet floor to the heavy-beamed ceiling ten feet above, their ranks broken only by a fireplace and by a well-stocked sideboard whose crystal decanters and glasses glittered and threw back the light from the cheery blaze in the hearth.
Several overstuffed armchairs had been set near the fireplace for comfortable reading. Two of these chairs were occupied; the men in them rose as Bryn was shown in.
"I'll leave the three of you to get acquainted," the servant said without further words of introduction. "Mr. Rostoke will no doubt be in to see you in a few minutes." With that, he turned and left the three of them together.
"There's more than a bit of 'the master will be in to see you when he's good and ready' to that, don't you agree?" suggested one of the men, a tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed fellow with the look of a fighter about him.
"Indeed, I shared your impression," replied the second man. He was leaner of build and perhaps five years younger than the soldier, seeming to be in his mid-thirties. That might have been deceptive, as the man's white mantle and the silver circlet in his green hair marked him as an Esper, and the reclusive, magically-gifted folk often seemed to age more slowly than was the norm. "It seems quite out of the ordinary for how I'd expect Rostoke to treat an invited guest."
"I agree," she said, walking over to the sideboard and pouring herself a glass of wine. The crimson liquid had a heady bouquet; she recognized it as having come from the vineyards of the native Dezolian temple south of Ryuon. Duncan Rostoke clearly wasn't suffering from a lack of funds as the wine must have cost several hundred meseta per bottle. "This isn't like Rostoke. I've never known him to be lacking in courtesy, even when involved in one of his projects."
"So you know him as well?" the warrior asked.
"Yes; we've worked together a couple of times." She strolled over to the fire where the other two waited and extended her hand. "Brynna Morgaine; you can call me Bryn."
"A pleasure," said the fighter. "I'm Trent Hawthorne."
"Mathew Wyreth," the Esper contributed, shaking Bryn's hand in turn.
The three of them settled into chairs before the fire and sipped at their drinks.
"I worked for Rostoke once," Hawthorne supplied. "He was leading an expedition to Guaron Morgue and needed fighters along. Creepy place, that. It used to be a crypt for the native Dezolians, but it's had a bad reputation for a millennium and a half. They say the dead walk within its walls and even the priests who were its caretakers refused to return after a while."
"Were the stories true?"
Hawthorne shook his head, a black look in his eyes.
"I couldn't say. The place had become infested with monsters, which Duncan figured could have been left behind after the destruction of Mother Brain five centuries ago. Half of us were killed, and not prettily either."
Bryn looked into her glass.
"Duncan never would tell me what happened at Guaron. I guess now I know why."
She sipped at her wine; the taste was exquisite and sent warmth purring through her veins. Bryn could still hear the wind whistle in the chimney and see the swirling fall of snow through the arched window over the sideboard, but the warm fire and the homey setting of the library seemed to make the blizzard something very far away.
"May I presume, then," said the Esper, "that the two of you, like myself, received a letter from Rostoke requesting that we visit him today if we were interested in assisting him in a new project?"
"Well, mine included an offer of two thousand meseta with a bonus from one to five thousand depending on the actual hazards encountered, but otherwise you have the right general idea."
"Whereas my terms were negotiable," Bryn said.
"What is your profession?" Wyreth asked her. "Hawthorne is clearly a mercenary soldier, but you are not so easy to place."
Bryn leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs.
"That doesn't surprise me. I do a number of things: hunter, merchant, explorer, problem-solver. I suppose that you could call me an adventurer; I travel seeking out anything that might be new and interesting, and hopefully profitable. Battle, trade, knowledge, or even just a pretty view, it really doesn't matter just so long as it's interesting."
Hawthorne smiled wryly and knocked back the whiskey in his own glass.
"Interesting, huh?" he grunted. "Well, that describes Duncan's work well enough. Delving into the past like he does, rooting out the truth behind mysteries and ancient legends may occasionally be playing with fire, but always interesting."
Which, Bryn supposed, was as good a summary of Duncan Rostoke's work as any. Born into a moneyed family, Rostoke had had the benefit of a first-rate education, tutored in history, literature, and the sciences. It was folklore, especially, that had caught his attention, the myths and legends of the planet Dezolis. As an adult, Rostoke searched out those mysteries, exploring caves and dungeons and traveling to far-off places in order to learn the truth behind the stories. Sometimes that truth turned out to be natural phenomena blown out of proportion by myth and superstition, but other times...
Serious archeologists and scholars, such as those associated with the native Dezolian church, might have dismissed Rostoke as a dabbler, but even they had to concede he had made some intriguing discoveries, such as the relic from the advanced Parmanian civilization that had flourished during the era of Mother Brain. Bryn had been with him when he discovered this complex located southwest of the town of Jut, though the seemingly living machines that had infested it had prevented more than casual study.
"So, neither of you have any idea what Rostoke wanted our help with this time?" Hawthorne asked.
The burning logs popped and crackled in the hearth.
"None at all."
Wyreth shook his head.
"None of us was given that information, it seems."
The mercenary set his glass aside.
"Well, it's certainly whetted my curiosity. I suppose in the end the specifics won't matter. There really isn't any way to prepare for one of Rostoke's jobs because even he can't be sure what to expect."
Bryn nodded in agreement. That was one of the things she liked best about working with Rostoke.
"We were lucky to be able to reach here at all," she observed, "considering the storm that blew in."
"Yes, that was very curious, and most unexpected," Wyreth agreed. "It blew up as if from nowhere just before Hawthorne and I reached here."
"I was about halfway to the house from Tyler, then," Bryn said, "so I decided to keep on. Now it looks as if we're going to be snowed in for a while."
The library doors opened, and all three guests looked up, expecting it to be their host, but instead it was a woman. A few years younger than Bryn, she wore a high-necked velvet dress that emphasized her voluptuously curved figure. Waves of midnight black hair tumbled over her shoulders, and the dark blue of her eyes matched her gown. Her skin was tawny, and her lips very red.
"Please excuse me," she said in a rich, throaty voice, "but Josiah indicated that my husband had guests, and I wanted to give you a proper welcome to Rostoke Manor."
Bryn recalled hearing that Rostoke, who had put off marriage for quite a while, had finally settled down and wed only a few years ago. His wife must have been about twenty years younger than he was, though Bryn had to admit that Rostoke had a keen eye for beauty.
"It's a pleasure," Hawthorne said. He, it seemed, also appreciated his host's taste in women.
"Thank you," Wyreth said politely. "Do you know if your husband will be detained much longer, Mrs. Rostoke?"
"Do call me Laura," she replied. "When I hear 'Mrs. Rostoke,' I instinctively think it is one of the servants speaking. As for Duncan, I just sent Marybeth up to the laboratory to look for him. For some reason she never will go there on her own unless asked, so it is quite likely that Duncan does not even know of your presence as yet."
She tilted her head to one side thoughtfully.
"I can hardly blame her. I myself get quite nervous when I have to go in there alone. Between Duncan's chemicals and the artifacts from his journeys he keeps there for study, I am always afraid that I will accidentally touch something fragile or dangerous. Since Mrs. Saul lacks more than a basic education, it must be even more daunting for her. And, of course," Laura added, almost as an afterthought, "she is quite superstitious."
Wyreth steepled his fingers.
"Superstition is not always foolish," he observed, "especially as our host has more than once found a very real danger at the core of a seemingly arcane local belief."
A delicate shudder ran through the brunette's form.
"Why, sir, you will have me quite terrified if you go on so."
It was said lightly and humorously, but beneath that Bryn detected a certain tension, indicating that perhaps there was something about her husband's work which Laura did fear, a fear she was trying to cover over with the banter.
All three of the guests understood. They were each experienced in facing danger, but their time spent on Rostoke's projects had taught them caution.
"But please, will you introduce yourselves?" Laura asked, trying to smooth over the unexpectedly awkward moment as best she could. "Duncan did not tell me we were expecting guests."
That was another strange thing, Bryn pondered as the three of them introduced themselves. Rostoke's letters had named the day upon which his guests were supposed to arrive, yet he had told neither his wife nor, to judge from the doorman's behavior, his servants. It was not the kind of behavior she'd come to expect from the adventurer; courtesy and an attention to detail were as much a part of Duncan Rostoke's personality as the reckless courage that drove him in his pursuit of ancient mysteries.
The only explanation Bryn could think of was that Rostoke had become caught up in some engrossing bit of research, the kind that demanded his full attention. She wondered if it would delay the job he wanted their aid for, or if it was some kind of preliminary work.
"I've given instructions for three guest rooms to be made up for you, since with the weather the way it is, I'm sure you'll be staying the night. Unless one of you intends to travel by telepipe?"
"I can't speak for the others," Bryn said, "but I, for one, will be more than happy to accept your hospitality. Besides which, even if one of us has a telepipe, travel by that means is imprecise and returning here could be difficult given the weather."
"I see," Laura glanced at the window. "Such an unrelenting snowstorm. It seems out of season for it, but then, who can say?"
"Looking at it pragmatically," Hawthorne noted, "I see it as an opportunity for us to take advantage of the comforts of a very fine home."
Wyreth looked as if he intended to respond to that, but before he could say anything, all four of them had their attention seized by the muffled but distinct sound of a woman's scream.