Author’s Note: Welcome to the world of Paladin! Please note that this first chapter (Chapter 1-Prologue) is unedited and will not be included in the version I eventually attempt to publish.

Paladin has been a labor of love for the past 15 months, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I love hearing from readers and try to respond to every comment, so comment away. PSA over!

© 2012 Sally Slater. All Rights Reserved.

Cover © 2013 Hayley John. All Rights Reserved.

Dedicated to my mother. 

In the year 371 Post Daemoniorum (P.D.)

Lady Samantha of Haywood watched the swordsmen below from her perch on the old oak tree, her skinny legs swinging back and forth as she hugged the thick trunk for balance. The giant tree grew several feet above the castle wall, giving her a perfect view of the training yard below. More importantly, the heavy branches and dense foliage hid her from her father.

The two men circled each other, swords extended. Even from her tree, Samantha could see the rivulets of sweat rolling down Sir Daniel's face, the drops dying the red of his tunic a deep maroon. Both men were breathing hard, though she noted that Sir Daniel's sword arm was beginning to shake from exertion while his opponent's form held strong.

A large audience had gathered in the training yard, the spectators shouting encouragements and cheering as the men reengaged, the metallic sound of sword against sword overpowering the hum of the crowd.

Sir Daniel was a fierce fighter--the best in all of Haywood and a recognized bladesmaster--but even Samantha's untrained eye could tell he was outclassed by his opponent. The man's sword was like an extension of his arm, effortlessly meeting the swing of Sir Daniel's blade and darting in teasing flicks that connected more often than not. The lightness with which he moved and the gracefulness of his ripostes reminded her of some sort of exotic dance. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

A moment later, it was over. Sir Daniel knelt on one knee, a sword against his throat. The crowd was hushed, stunned at the blademaster's defeat. His golden haired opponent dropped his sword and clasped Sir Daniel's hand, pulling him to his feet.

"Well fought, Sir Knight," said the golden-haired man in a surprisingly young baritone.

Sir Daniel dipped his head. "The honor is mine, Paladin Lyons."

Samantha suspected that would be the last she saw of the Paladin. Her father would whisk him away to talk politics or whatever it was they talked about behind closed doors, and then he would be gone from Haywood on the morrow. Haywood was one of the few big cities in Thule that didn't have a Paladin permanently in residence, and  the elite warriors seldom stayed in town for more than a night or two. 

The Paladins were charged with defending the people of Thule from the demon attacks that had plagued the kingdom for the last half century. Demons were living nightmares, man’s greatest fears given shape and form and substance. Nobody knew where they came from or what drove them to attack. They were spoken of in hushed tones, and unless you had the misfortune of encountering one, it was hard to believe such creatures existed outside the world of imagination. Samantha considered them little more than a scary bedtime story.

That night, as Samantha tossed and turned in her bed, darkness took root in her unguarded dreams.

A foul stench woke her. She wrinkled her nose, the sulfuric smell shaking off the last vestiges of sleep. A few splashes of liquid hit her cheek, leaving behind a slight stinging sensation. A leak in the ceiling? she thought. She brushed the wetness aside with the back of her hand.