Ireland, in a lost county and a forgotten time...
The wind shook dry tree branches against the tall windows of the coastal castle. Their leafless fingers clawed the glass as if to beg the housekeeper to let them in from the icy gale. Despite the inviting candle glow from within, the estate house was in chaos. Night watchmen scurried about, the chef shot a panicked glance down the hall before he cowered in the kitchen with a broad, iron cooking pot, and the housekeeper wandered the scene in pale fright, repeating the old news as if in a trance.
"He's dead!" she shrieked, completely ignored. "I found him... stabbed!" She staggered from a spiral staircase and sunk against the smooth, maple wall in the front hall. "Dead..." she repeated, shaking her head.
The iron-bound door to the house flew open and bounced against the wall with a startling thud. A young man in a heavy overcoat strode in and tossed the wool scarf from his chin. The dark face scowled, glanced up the stairs, then turned to the open door. "Barras!" he called into the chilling darkness.
A short, barrel-shaped man hurried inside with several sheathed swords bundled in his arms. "Sorry, sir," the man said as he brushed a few leaves from his red beard. "We're all a might shaken."
"So am I..." the young man frowned. "But I don't think that last drink helped the situation."
Barras looked sheepish then said, "Calms me down, Master Ryan."
"Never mind," he said as he snatched a scabbard from the retainer's bundle. "Circle around the back of the house with the rest of the watch. Make sure all exits are covered."
"He's dead!" The housekeeper shrieked again.
"And will someone please give poor Mrs. Ockley a glass of brandy?" Ryan pounded his gloved fist against the kitchen door.
The chef swung the door open with an iron pot raised over his head. Ryan whipped the sword from its sheath and deflected the cooking pot with a clang.
"Master Gainnes!" the cook exclaimed from under his blunt weapon.
"Neil, take Mrs. Ockley into the kitchen."
"Of course, sir," the trembling chef said as he dropped the pot to the tile with a horrid clatter.
Ryan grimaced, then continued, "Give her a brandy, lock the door, and stay in there until I come back."
Neil nodded, helped the elderly housekeeper to her feet, and brought her into the kitchen.
The dark eyes flashed back to his little helper. "Go, Barras!"
"Y-yes, sir..." The little man stammered as he disappeared into the darkness.
Ryan dashed up the center staircase, his two-edged blade leading the way through the fading candle-light. He gave a glance to his right, but since there was no light down the corridor, he chose to search the left hall. When he reached the study, he could just make out a faint glow from under the study door so he quietly approached. The thickness of the door muffled any sound from within so Ryan would have to barge in unaware. He held his breath, slowly turned the brass knob, let the weight of the oak pull itself inward, then crept inside, sword first.
There was a single candle burning on a spacious desk near the window. The flickering glow illuminated the dark silhouette of a man rummaging through books on a nearby shelf. He yanked some ledgers down to get at a larger volume hidden beneath a layer of dust. He slid the heavy text to the edge, flipped through the pages, then pushed it aside in frustration.
Ryan inched forward. Thud . The door had struck the inner wall and the dusky man whirled around. "Young Master Kavanagh?" Ryan said in astonishment.
"Master Gainnes," the young man matched the other's over-formal manner.
"What are... did you...?"
"Kill my father?" the Kavanagh heir, Shane, raised an eyebrow.
Ryan remained motionless but a splinter of doubt flashed across his face.
"Oh, for God's sake, man! If only you could kill