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.

Three more drops of liquid fell from above, one landing square in her right eye. Samantha yelped in surprise--it felt like someone had doused her with vinegar. Blearily, she rubbed at her scorched lid, fumbling around in an effort to light the candle by her bedside.

Once lit, the candle glowed with a soft luminescence, casting tall shadows across the room. She walked towards the water basin, tears streaming down her cheek at the acidic burn. Something moved--quickly--in her left peripheral vision. What in the world was that? The sulfuric smell had worsened, too.

She turned her head to the left, and saw nothing. Chasing shadows, she thought, laughing quietly at her own foolishness. After rinsing out her eye and splashing her face a few times for good measure, she flopped backwards onto the large bed.

And stared.

Ruby eyes glimmered in the dim light, deep-set against a black muzzle with grotesque, pendulous lips, dribbling drool and spittle in mimicry of dog slobber. Hanging wrinkles and folds disfigured the massive canine head, which connected to a muscular neck and a furry, barrel-shaped chest. The creature scuttled across the ceiling on eight spiderlike, multijointed legs that tapered into hooked claws, leaving deep gouges in the plaster.

She opened her mouth to scream for help, but no sound came out. Fear had rendered her mute. I'm too young to die, she thought, rolling off the bed and backing slowly away from where the demon hung overhead.

The demon flung itself from the ceiling, flipping in midair to land upright on the bed. The thing bared its teeth and growled, stalking her like prey. Which, she supposed half hysterically, she unfortunately was. 

The creature was but five feet from her--close enough that she could identify its breath as the source of the acrid stench--when  the door to her bedroom burst open. A longsword sliced horizontally across the demon's legs, the crunch of bone and tendon audible. 

"Stand back, my lady!"a familiar baritone shouted, as the creature's legless torso wobbled and rolled. The detached limbs remained upright and animated, as if they didn't realize they no longer accompanied a body.

While some part of her brain registered the words, she stood paralyzed, held captive by her repulsion. A heavy masculine arm shoved her out of the demon's path.

"Paladin Lyons!" she cried.

"Be careful, my lady. It's not dead yet," the Paladin said, eyes glued to the target. He crouched to the floor, knuckles dragging against the rug, his face a mask of concentration. After a beat, he propelled himself off the ground and above the beast, almost as though he were flying. As his body arced downwards, he held his sword arm out behind him, the blade whistling in the air as he hacked clean through the demon's neck. The beast and all its extraneous body parts lay still. 

The Paladin wiped the blood from his sword with his brown dressing robe, and turned at last to face Samantha. "It's dead now." He grinned and winked. Though Samantha wasn't interested in such things, she had to admit the Paladin was uncommonly handsome--and young, perhaps six or seven years older than her twelve years of age.

"You'll want to fetch someone to clean that up," he said.

"Y-yes, Paladin," she stammered.

"Tristan Lyons." He bowed low, his topknot brushing against the floor. "Sweet dreams, my lady. Until we meet again." The Paladin swept out the door as quickly as he had entered, leaving her alone with her thoughts...and a decapitated demon.

After the servants had cleared the remnants of the demon from her room and Samantha returned to bed, she wasn't afraid.  No, she was angry. Angry that had the Paladin not come to her rescue, she would have been dog food to an ugly mutt with spider legs. Angry she had been able to do nothing. Angry she had been afraid. Never again, she swore. Never again.