Part 1: Excommunicate
The Dead Man
5 Autumnsrest, 792 H.R.
I’m a dead man already. Why does he keep trying to kill me?
Kozen Athesis had time only for this random inexplicable thought–and to draw his longsword–as the swarm of giant spiders came at him. They flowed like water over the glacier-jumbled rocks along the narrow, packed dirt road. Having few options, he had to retreat.
He counted at least fifteen of them before he lost track…and they were roughly the size of large pumpkins.
One drew near and Kozen swiped at the mottled black-and-orange arachnid, severing one of its hairy legs. Dark blood the color of ichor spurted from the jutting end. Screeching, waving its mandibles and antennae wildly, its faceted black eyes remained fixed on Kozen. An instant later, minus the leg, it renewed its attack anyway.
Fully engaged with the first of these monsters, Kozen almost missed the second as it sprang at him from atop a hunk of granite on his left. He slashed down hard and split the leathery thorax nearly in two. The remains fell to the bare ground, staining it with black, red, and yellow-green.
Kozen retreated further and chopped at the third spider, but it bounced out of the way. The fourth, however, was not as dexterous, and it soon lay dead as well, burst like a rotten melon–with a stench to match, a malodorous combination of rank decay and rotten eggs. It made his stomach clench.
He was forced off and away from the road, toward a sloping field of larger stones. In a moment, he realized the spiders were trying to drive him to where they could climb those boulders and drop from above. No time for finesse, he thought and simply sprinted the twenty yards towards a flat-topped granite slab, large enough to be defensible. The spiders chittered and hissed as they flew in pursuit.
Kozen reached the slab just ahead of the Abominations, feeling one of them attempt a failed grab at his leg even as he leapt. His boots skidded on the uneven surface, but just before he went over the side, he managed to stop himself. Behind, he could hear the spider which had missed him and another climbing up, their hard articulated legs making strange metallic scraping noises against the hard granite. Quickly, he turned and swung his sword low in a broad sweep. With a dull clang, the blade lopped off the mandibles and forelegs of the spider in the lead, and Kozen immediately kicked it over the edge. He cut off the second spider’s head and watched as its body tumbled backwards to hit the ground with a thud. The creature’s limbs twitched and continued to gyrate randomly for several seconds before growing still.
The Abominations paused in their attack, as if collectively reassessing their strategy. The remaining two at the base of the granite slab merely kept Kozen there, as the rest of their kind swarmed over and joined them. Now he was completely surrounded on all sides.
Not good, Kozen realized. He’d allowed himself to be cornered, and worse, he would have to wait for them to make the next move. He couldn’t reach them otherwise. Indeed, these creatures appeared to be displaying a kind of crude intelligence, but by now he was no longer surprised by anything an Abomination might do. These spider-things had not been the first, nor the only kind of Abomination he’d encountered.
Two of the spiders now made as if to jump up onto the rock with him, but he saw the move for the feint it was. They deliberately fell short, the claws of one drawing a few sparks. They have actual metal in their talons? Is that even possible?
The actual assault came from behind, with three spiders finding claw-holds on the side he’d thought was the more difficult. Kozen spun and slashed at one, and kicked another over the side. The third, however, swung up by the grip of a pair of forelegs and sunk its mandibles into his calf. Immediately, it scrabbled higher onto his thigh, biting directly through the thick wool fabric as if it was mere gossamer.
With a shout of pain, Kozen thrust his sword point down, driving the blade directly into the body of the spider and missing his own leg by a bare inch. Yanking the sword back and forth, eventually he was able to dislodge the creature, although its mandibles remained imbedded in the flesh of Kozen’s upper thigh. He knocked them free with the sword pommel and a warm gush of blood down his leg.
Feint and retreat, the Abominations tested him again and again. He managed to take another claw but that was all, as they were not exposing themselves nearly as much now. The spiders were clever, he had to give them that.
Another of the monstrous spiders found a way up onto the rock, and Kozen killed it with a savage, half-wild slash. Its thick blood splattered his legs, adding to the dark stains already there. If this kept up, there’d be no brown left. Only black. An appropriate color, the notion occurred to him. Damned is damned. Maybe these beasts are just the torments of the Abyss come early for the rest of me.
Almost as if they’d been reading his mind, the arachnid Abominations flowed up from all sides at once.
Kozen sliced, stabbed, kicked, and shoved. He spun like a whirlwind to try to face them all and still it wasn’t enough. They kept slashing at his legs, and Kozen knew if he lost his footing and fell, it would be over before he hit the ground.
One of the larger spiders bounced up to wrap itself firmly around Kozen’s left leg, tearing viciously at his thigh again before he could cut it loose. He punted the creature, the toe of his boot sinking sickeningly into its flank. Now, the blood ran down his leg in a small torrent.
Another Abomination landed hard against his back, staggering him. With a few blind, panicked thrusts over his shoulder, he battered it loose and sliced it wide open, revealing innards which were queerly undifferentiated–a mélange of black and red liquids swirled through a substance that resembled egg custard. The stench was indescribable, and Kozen’s already clenched stomach threatened to heave. He tasted raw bile.
Still more of the Abominations came.
Growling imprecations and rough obscenities, Kozen slew one after another. The pile of dead spiders around the granite slab grew, making it ever easier for the survivors to press the attack.
He killed, and killed again.
Simultaneously, a pair of the spiders attacked from either side. Kozen slew the one on the right without much difficulty, but before he could react the other darted close and clamped onto his wounded left leg. As he stabbed down at that one, another spider flew at him from behind and clambered straight up his pack. Its legs nearly encircling his head, the creature hissed angrily in his ear.
Kozen had no choice. He dropped the longsword and reached over his head with both hands, grabbing at the soft, leathery body.
Losing himself in fury and terror, he ripped the Abomination free. Its mandibles snapped repeatedly at his unprotected hands, and he knew he’d lose fingers if they got even close to the noisome, grasping maw. Heedless of the pain, he dropped to his knees and with all his strength dashed the Abomination–this quintessence of wrongness–against the rough granite.
Howling, Kozen slammed it down again and again. The spider screeched as if in reply, struggling. Finally, its bloated body burst, spilling obscene guts out and over the side of the boulder. They ran down the face of the rock, leaving trails of dark blood and slime that steamed in the chilly evening air.
It took several seconds before Kozen realized it was his own voice still ringing in his ears and that he had screamed himself hoarse. Coming back to the moment, he scrabbled blindly for his sword, fear-rimmed eyes seeking the next assault. His groping fingers found his sword, the hilt slick with blood–his own or that of the monsters, he did not know nor care. Gripping the weapon tightly, he staggered to his feet again, almost completely spent but ready nonetheless.
The attack didn’t come. The last of them?
He waited for nearly a minute to be sure, but it seemed to be so.
Wearily, Kozen eased himself down from the boulder. He could barely walk, so he moved just a short distance away and leaned against another granite boulder.
Watching carefully for movement from the corpses, he surveyed the carnage and counted over twenty of the black-and-orange spider bodies in a circle roughly centered on the slab, most motionless but some few yet twitching. This wasn’t counting the two he’d slain before reaching his unwise perch.
The late afternoon sun, now only a few handspans above the western horizon, cast lengthening shadows from the jumbled stones and hacked spider corpses across the barren ground. There was a frigid bite to the stiffening breeze from that direction, and although only a few clouds marked the reddish sky, the air felt thick and heavy with the promise of the coming autumn rains.
When he’d recovered a little, Kozen set down his longsword, point resting in the dirt and hilt within easy reach, and drew the dagger from his belt. The brown wool cloth of his breeches, in addition to being badly stained was now also tattered, with a long rent at the thigh. It only took a few cuts to trim back the fabric, exposing the largest of the wounds.
No doubt about it. I need to deal with this before I can go anywhere. A chunk of skin and muscle had been bitten right out of his leg, about two inches long by one wide, and deep. Very nearly a puncture wound, which were the worst with respect to risk of festering, and it probably ought to be stitched. However, he didn’t have a steel needle nor the boiled thread necessary, since those had been lost with the majority of his belongings outside Pala, almost a month ago. Gods rot those climbing snakes, he grumbled. “And that stupid, stupid horse of mine…”
He could only hope the spiders’ bites weren’t envenomed, because it would be several hours before he could reach the village to the south and he was not even sure they’d have a decent herbalist. Going north again was out of the question, obviously, since he’d only be turned away.
For a time there back at the border, earlier in the afternoon, Kozen had believed the guards would let him pass through to Hest. Thus would begin the exile he’d assumed was the intended punishment for his crimes. First exiled from the eyes of my god, then from the kingdom of my birth, Kozen thought. Wasn’t that what he had in mind? What else can he want?
Unlimbering the small pack slung across his back, Kozen slipped it out from under his woolen cloak. He rummaged through his meager belongings, looking for the squares of clean muslin he knew were down in there somewhere, and scratched at his bearded chin with his free hand.
Near the bottom, under a spare shirt, he finally found the folded squares of cloth, and two long strips of lightly cured leather. After washing out the wound, he then secured the muslin pad as best he could. When done and his pack reslung, Kozen wiped clean his longsword on a nether fold of his cloak and sheathed it.
I’m nowhere near the soldier I once was. He’d performed better today, but the effort still wasn’t up to his old standard. Shaking his head, Kozen decided to add evening practice sessions and sword forms to the half hour he’d already been spending on these in the mornings. It would be better if he’d had a sparring partner, but he knew he might just as well have wished to be twenty years younger and still in good graces with King and Church. He’d find a way to make do.
Kozen ran a hand wearily through sweat-dampened hair, already two inches longer than had been regulation in the Royal Guard and the general rule by unspoken convention in the Church. His new salt-and-pepper beard, just now thick enough to change the contours of his features somewhat, still itched.
I’m not bound by those rules anymore, Kozen thought. Or any regulation, rule, or law ever written.
The idea was hardly a consolation, but it was also just about the only upside he could think of for the sentence of Excommunication: There was literally nothing he could do to make it worse.
Nor am I protected by those laws either…
That, of course, was the rub. As an outlaw, he could be robbed, assaulted, even killed, and the perpetrator would suffer no penalty whatsoever. His killer might even be rewarded.
What now? Kozen asked silently, and not for the first time. Where now?
No answers, and the dead spiders still weren’t talking.
Enough dawdling, he chided himself. Back to the village then, if nowhere else. He pushed himself to his feet.
The land here between Hest and Telaria was hard, the sharp hills strewn with rocks from some long-ago ice age and useless for farming. A single deeply rutted track scarred the scrubby ground, heading straight as an arrow due north and south. It almost entirely ignored the contours of the hills, as if the people passing through here–those who’d made the road with the wheels of their wagons and the hooves of their oxen, donkeys, and horses–had wanted the trip to be as brief and uninteresting as possible.
Kozen took a deep breath, pinched the bridge of his nose, and wiped more sweat from his forehead with one sleeve. The perfect place for a border between two kingdoms. No one wants it.
This was also why he’d tried to flee along this route, of course. A shame it hadn’t worked.
The shabby but well-traveled road also explained the three prosperous wainwright shops in the last Telarian village, two or three leagues to the south. Likely there were similar shops doing just as well a few leagues into Hest, for exactly the same reason, but Kozen wouldn’t have a chance to confirm this. Having alerted the squad of Elite guardsmen to his presence near the border, they’d be certain to send runners and outriders east and west from their post, just to ensure he didn’t attempt to leave the road and circle around.
They could be watching right now. I wouldn’t even know it. He resisted the urge to search the scattered boulders and hilltops, knowing the Elite would not be seen unless they wished to be. They were that good.
Well, if they’d wanted me dead, I’d be dead already. Whatever the reasons, their orders seemed not to include his demise, only a denial of permission to leave Telaria. Despite their duty-stiffened miens, Kozen thought he’d detected the slightest flicker of recognition in the brown eyes of the youngest guard. Had the man known who he was, really? Had he guessed?
Not likely, Kozen decided. That one would’ve been mere boy at the time of the… of the massacre. No, probably they were working from a description and a name, perhaps a rough drawing. He could just imagine such orders: He’ll be traveling alone. Goes by the name Kozen Athesis, although he may be using an alias. About six feet tall, average build, in his late middle years. Brown hair turning to gray, receding a little at the temples. Gray-green eyes, good teeth. Talks like an educated man, but acts like a soldier–which he was, once a Captain in the Royal Guard before resigning under questionable circumstances. The education came from time spent in the Holy Church, so he may be trying to pass himself off as a priest, if not as a soldier or free mercenary. If you look closely, you may be able to discern there is something terribly wrong with him, that he lacks a human soul…
Kozen shook his head. He didn’t honestly believe this last would be in the border guards’ orders, but there would probably be something in there to achieve the same effect. No one would knowingly aid him, lest they receive the same fate: Outlawry and damnation everlasting.
Upon reaching the road, he glanced only briefly northward, a sudden gust of breeze making him squint. Can’t go north, he already knew, consdering his longer-term plans. Nara is out of the question as well, obviously. Almost certainly can’t buy passage on any ship on the Southern Sea–His Highness will have seen to that. No way out.
Kozen considered this, scratching at his chin again, really not liking the new beard. The current day, however, wasn’t getting any longer, so he resumed walking. He’d have to go south first to the Telarian village he’d just left–one whose name he didn’t bother to note–and then decide where to continue on from there. Fortunately, his leg held his weight just fine, even if it did hurt like blazes as he climbed the first slope.
Pain he could deal with.
Hiking as rapidly as his damaged leg and state of exhaustion would allow, he pondered his predicament. Less than an hour ago, I was literally in their hands. Their orders? Not to kill me, or capture me. Not to turn me over to an executioner. Only that I be denied the border crossing. On this side of the border…
All the pieces fell together, all at once in a single breathtaking instant–it was no coincidence, neither the odd orders nor the Abominations. “What an utter and complete fool I’ve been,” he said aloud. “And blind as poxed beggar besides.”
For months, Kozen had presumed the Abominations were a direct consequence of his Excommunication. After all, it seemed only natural that having been shriven of his immortal soul, the attentions of malign, demonic beings would be drawn to him, that they would seek to slay him and take his sin-blackened soul to the Abyss.
Great Ruler…the Abominations serve His Highness. And he’s driving me like a hound drives a hare, because he thinks I’ll lead him to… to what? To the proof I don’t have?
Trudging downhill now, feeling a bolt of pain in his wounded leg with every stride, Kozen watched his lengthening shadow keep pace to his left. Abruptly, he barked laughter, startling a trio of grackles supping on some unseen carrion in the brambles ahead. “Even if I had an audience with the Emperor’s Court, no one would believe me.”
The grackles fluttered their small black wings as they circled back to their dinner and cawed agreement. At least, that was how it sounded to Kozen.
He knew he had no proof of anything, not one shred of evidence to support his suspicions and in time, the Telarian monarch would bring ruin down on everyone. First, blockade…then total war…and in the end, the inquisition and genocide of every single ‘magic-tainted’ Telarian citizen.
Which would be most of them.
Shrugging, he pushed himself back into motion, resuming the hike south towards the village. Despite the pain, the injured leg continued to bear his weight well enough, and the bandage held. The breeze, still blowing at his back, became increasingly chilly as the sun slipped below the western horizon. Nevertheless, Kozen barely noticed any of these things as his mind turned upon the possibilities, like a child trying to unlock a puzzle-box. It felt good to be doing something positive for a change.
It’s almost enough to make a man forget he’s irrevocably damned.
22 Frostfall, 792 H.R.
Returning to Eleahome had been a calculated risk. In fact, Kozen was well aware he’d be safe nowhere in Telaria, but the capital itself represented the most dangerous place of all. Coming back here would have been unimaginable had the king himself been present, with all his guards.
Fortunately for Kozen, it had become a long-standing tradition for the winter court to be held each year in Old Telaria, the former capital on the far east coast of the kingdom. Leopold and his huge retinue departed over a month ago–leaving Eleahome emptier than usual, with many of the nobles and courtiers gone, too. A large proportion of the Royal Guard also left with the immense caravan, and nearly all of the Elite. Some guardsmen still patrolled the city, although in far fewer numbers than at other times of the year.
Reflecting the winter court tradition, it was as if Eleahome itself rested during these frigid months, going into a kind of social hibernation. Those citizens still in the city–which was most of the population–nevertheless tended to stay indoors, even when the weather was good. Merchants hawked their wares, but often reduced the hours during which their carts, stalls, and shops were open for business.
And whenever it snowed, which was frequent here in winter, everything froze into even greater immobility for days at a time. After the skies relented, the city only bestirred itself a little, like a great bear turning around drowsily, before settling down to renewed slumber.
This did not mean Kozen felt free to walk Eleahome’s sparsely traveled streets without care though. The last thing he wanted was for word to get back to Leopold somehow that he’d been here. If not for the necessity, and the lack of any other known options, he wouldn’t have risked coming here at all.
What’s more, Kozen couldn’t be positive there were no orders for his capture. After all, it’s not like I can walk up to a guard and ask, ‘Hey, can you tell me whether you’re supposed to arrest and execute me?’
Nevertheless, it still felt ironic to be skulking like a sneak-thief about the streets and alleys in the city he knew so well. Here was the narrow street known as Potter’s Lane–even though there were no potters or kilns along it, only a single tailor’s shop and a number of tall wooden houses. Beyond the end lay two streets at a fork, one known as Harbor Way, and the other called Tannery Row (which, in fact, did boast four leather tanners along its acrid, smelly length). And some distance behind Kozen was the large open space known as the Free Market, so named because you didn’t need any sort of guild license to sell there, just a cart and a willingness to defend your favored location in the cobblestone-lined square. Of course, some merchants had been in their particular spot for so long that everyone pretty much accepted their ‘ownership’ of what was otherwise public property. For instance, Kozen noticed Augustin the Moneychanger in the same location, right next to the Harpers Street entrance to the square, which he’d been occupying for the last twenty years or more.
Kozen had come this way after viewing Eleahome’s Church of the Great Ruler. It was a grand, imposing cathedral of rough-hewn granite and polished marble, with arches and crenellations, high steeples, and a number of tall bell towers. Most of these last sounded only for services or high holy days, but one tower’s bells were used exclusively to ring the hours–the only measure of time that most of the inhabitants of Eleahome would ever experience, save the sun and stars above.
The church was also one of the places that remained well-guarded, even in winter. Two guards at the doors, and two pairs on regular patrols around the outside. Kozen knew as well there were even more Royal Guardsmen inside. Short of actually becoming akin to a sneak-thief, Kozen came to the reluctant conclusion that he had little hope of gaining easy entrance to the church library–that is, assuming they hadn’t moved all those records to a more secure location, as Archbishop DiMarisol had recommended at Kozen’s hearing before the Bishopric.
Regardless, since Kozen was no longer a priest, they’d never allow him into that wing of the building anyway. Once recognized at the church entrance or soon after, as would certainly occur at some point, his entire ‘quest’ would be over before it began.
In time it might come to that, breaking into the library somehow. On the other hand, since he didn’t even know what he might be looking for–and what documentary evidence would constitute proof of Leopold’s crimes–it made sense to set this goal aside for the present.
Therefore, Kozen decided to follow up on his other lead–to find someone whose very existence was mere rumor, one of those “everybody knows” kinds of tales. He needed to find one of the last surviving priests of the Old Faith. So in the bars and taverns in the lower and middle class neighborhoods of the city, he began making discrete queries.
Eventually, Kozen’s luck turned both good and bad at the same time.
Good, in that he found out how and where he might locate the hidden priest.
Bad, in that upon deciding that the savory aroma of the beef and dumpling stew was too good to pass up, someone eventually recognized him.
He’d taken every precaution. Everywhere he went, he kept the hood of his cloak up, thankful for the frigid weather that made such not seem out of place, even indoors. From deep within the folds of woolen cloth, Kozen kept his voice pitched low as he asked his questions. By now, of course, he knew how to phrase it, so as not to raise alarm or suspicions. During his second stop, after hissing him to silence and pulling him aside, the old woman who’d been serving tables said she couldn’t help him find what he’d been looking for. But she could show him how to ask properly.
So now, in this fourth tavern–an establishment of moderate quality not far from the Eleahome harbor, one street over from Harbor Way–Kozen noted with satisfaction that the barkeep wore a thin red cord tied around his left wrist. This was one of the signs the old woman had told him to look for, showing Kozen her own faded string. She’d also given him the name of a nearby tailor’s shop where he could obtain one for himself.
At the bar, Kozen slid three coppers toward the man–one more coin, actually, than the price written crudely in chalk on a board above the bar–and asked for a mug of this season’s ale. When this was delivered, he asked softly, “I am looking for my father. Have you seen him?”
The barkeep’s gaze flicked down momentarily, and noted both the red cord around Kozen’s left wrist, as well as the way his hand rested casually atop the polished oak surface of the bar itself. Three fingers showing, with thumb and smallest finger tucked under. “I might’ve,” said the barkeep. He was an older gent, with only a fringe of gray hair around the back of his head, and dark brown eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Who should I say is asking after him?”
“Just his son, a pilgrim,” Kozen answered in the ritual formula taught him by the old woman. Then he made his real query, sliding a small silver coin across the bar to join the coppers. “I really do need to find him. It’s an urgent matter and my time is short.”
Peering at Kozen intently as if he were slightly nearsighted, the barkeep nevertheless scooped the coins off the polished wood. “Very well, ‘pilgrim,'” he said. “Word has it today he’s begging near the Free Market. Just listen for the old codger who can’t carry a tune, hollerin’ at the top of his lungs. You can’t miss him.”
“Thank you,” Kozen replied, and that was when he asked about the beef stew, which really did smell marvelous. He’d not eaten all day, and his empty stomach was insistent. Since it was fairly early yet in the day, he decided he could spare twenty minutes, then go find the priest. He felt fairly certain he’d heard the ‘old codger’ when he’d passed through the Free Market square earlier, too. The barkeep was right: At first, Kozen had thought someone was badly injured and howling for help–then he recognized the barely intelligible words of a ballad being yelled more than sung.
After receiving his food, Kozen picked a table in the corner that was the poorest lit, deep in the shadows–and even helped this along by surreptitiously blowing out the nearest oil lamp. With a large bowl of piping hot stew, a thick slice of coarse bread, and the mug of ale before him on the knife-scarred table, he nevertheless kept his hood up and his head down as he ate. His small pack lay right next to his feet, leaning against one boot. There were perhaps a dozen other patrons in the tavern room, all men, and none seemed to be paying him any especial attention. Every now and then, a serving girl made the rounds, bringing drinks and laughingly fending off playful gropes.
Despite all these measures, he was only halfway through the bowl of stew when he became aware of someone striding purposefully towards him. A big man, a half-foot taller than Kozen himself, with light blonde hair and blue eyes. He looked to be in his forties but hale and strong, and his square face was openly friendly. He held his hand raised in greeting, until Kozen looked up and asked quietly, “Yes?” Here we go…
“Sorry to bother you, friend,” said the big blonde man, smiling. He was missing two teeth to the left of his front ones. “I’m hoping you can help settle a bet between me and my friend over there.” He indicated a short, rattish-looking man, seated at a table not far from the hearth. The smaller gentleman lifted an earthenware mug in acknowledgement. The big fellow continued, “Tom there says you’ll say I’m crazy, that it’s just a resemblance and you probably get asked about it all the time. Me, think you’re actually him. So which is it?”
“Actually who?” Kozen asked, though he dreaded knowing would come next. He set down the spoon and drank some ale to clear his mouth. It was beginning to look like he might not get to finish this meal after all.
“Why, Captain Athesis, of course!” the blonde giant boomed. “The scourge and hero of Roan’s Run, who else? If so, I’d be honored to take Tom’s money and buy you a drink with the winnings. And then maybe another with my own coin!”
“You’re mistaken,” said Kozen. “Sorry. Guess I just look like him–maybe it’s the beard.”
“Ho ho!” laughed the blonde man, with immense good cheer. “I think not, your honor! It’s without the beard that you look like him–and now that I see you up close, I’m certain you’re he. I was there, at the ceremony when old King Stepan himself gave you the medal for bravery and valor. Border guard, fourth company–we were in Eleahome on leave when we heard about it. Sergeant Nedrick Crippetti, retired, at your service, sir!” The former sergeant sketched a quick, awkward salute, obviously many years out of practice. “Come on then, it’s all right. You’re among friends, Captain! Please, let me get you another of whatever you’re having, sir, and you can tell us the tale if you would. I’d give anything to hear it from the hero himself. So would Tom and probably everyone else here.”
“Hero!” spat another man seated at the next table. This one was heavyset, with two more sitting with him who looked enough alike they had to be close relations. But whereas the blonde giant was effusively friendly, this one frowned sourly as if it was the expression his face habitually wore. His hair was lanky, dark, and noticeably oily, his beard thicker but just as inexpertly trimmed. “He’s no gods-rotted hero!” the heavyset man continued angrily. “If you could ever bring yourself to step foot outside the city walls, Ned, you’d find they tell a very different story in the southlands. Captain Athesis is nothing more than a filthy, vicious butcher who massacred an entire village of Narans. Women, babies, and toothless old men, all defenseless and slaughtered like cattle. Tell it to our people, the ones the Narans slew in revenge–not that I can blame ’em. That son of a whore started his own private war–and then disappeared like a craven coward! I even heard a rumor not long ago that the church Excommunicated him. It’s not a free drink he deserves, but a gibbet!”
“Figures you’d take their side, Liast, seeing as how you and your brothers all come from those parts,” argued Ned, his good cheer evaporating in an instant. Jabbing a forefinger at Liast, he growled with menace. “Ain’t nothin’ but traitors down there anyway, with half the villages and farmsteads married into those copper-haired savages across the border. I always thought that scraggy beard of yours had more red in it than was decent. So who was it? Your grandpappy? Or is it more recent than that?”
Chairs were kicked back. Liast and his relations immediately jumped on Ned, throwing punches wildly. Ned’s friend Tom broke his mug against the side of their table. Wielding the mug handle and attached shards like a punch-dagger, he joined the fray, along with three men from over near the bar. The barkeep who’d assisted Kozen earlier whispered to the serving girl, who fled the tavern room, her face gone ashen white.
His meal abandoned, Kozen counted himself lucky to have gotten out of there in one piece. It shamed him to admit it, but it had helped that Liast and his kin were considerably outnumbered by Kozen’s erstwhile supporters. With everyone’s attention on the open brawl, he grabbed his small pack and slipped out through the kitchens.
As he circled around to the main street, he saw it was just as well anyway that he’d left. Ahead of him, the serving girl from the tavern pelted down the cobblestone road. With her long skirts hitched up nearly to her knees, her braids come undone and swinging wildly, she hollered loudly for the city guards.
Fortunately, she was heading towards the docks and the guards stationed there. Kozen turned away and went the other direction, back towards the Free Market square.
A shame, he thought to himself. That probably would’ve been a decent and clean place to spend the night. So much for word not getting around that I’ve been here…
The codger who couldn’t carry a tune turned out not to be at the Free Market anymore, Kozen soon found out. Eventually, he tracked him down several streets away, eating a day-old popkin. The elderly beggar had just bought it from a pie man closing his stall for the day, and by time Kozen approached, the merchant was already gone inside the house behind it. Although only mid-afternoon, most of the shops and stalls in these neighborhoods were already either closed or in the process of it. Even the Free Market square had been emptying when Kozen passed through a short while ago.
Remembering the ancient tales about how the clerics in the old stories had managed to overcome the wizards, it had been with this in mind that Kozen first approached the one he sought. Finally seeing him up close though, he wondered if this had been worth the effort at all. A more unlikely prospect didn’t seem possible.
The old man was gaunt and emaciated, his skin marked with so many age spots, they threatened to crowd out the natural, parchment-like pallor. His remaining wispy gray hair hung to his shoulders like long cobweb, and he might have been tall once, but now the hunched curve of his upper back threatened to become a hump. Between a nose grown long and downturned and pair of bushy white brows, his eyes were brown, with the left a distinctly lighter shade than the right, dimmed with a cataract. The codger huddled within a patched and re-patched brown wool cloak that had probably never been much to begin with, and the rest of his clothes–a long and much-repaired tunic over a pair of trousers, plus a mismatched pair of boots–were no better.
In short, Kozen concluded, a beggar. And not a very good one. Nothing’s to be lost for going just a little further down this path, he thought. Briefly waving his left hand with three fingers raised, Kozen said quietly, “Hello father. I come as a pilgrim to ask your aid.”
“Eh?” the old man asked querulously, one bony hand cupped around a large jutting ear, shaking visibly. “What’s that? Yer countin’ pigeons? Why’d anyone want to do that? They’re nothin’ but flyin’ vermin and not worth the bother. I ain’t yer Da, neither. I never married and all my bastards are girls. Go ‘way!”
Not willing to speak more loudly than he had already, Kozen instead leaned in closer and repeated the ritual greeting. Unable to avoid noticing that the codger apparently had not bathed in quite some time either, Kozen nevertheless added, “I seek the priest of the Old Faith.”
“Don’t know no such person,” the old man replied with annoyance, although Kozen thought he saw a flash of suspicion in the mis-matched rheumy eyes, deep in their nest of wrinkles. “Great Ruler’s church is the only lawful one there is and everybody knows it. Now shoo! Can’t ya see I’m eatin’ or have ya always been a rude git?”
“Just because something’s illegal does not mean it doesn’t exist,” Kozen argued and held out his hand, a single large coin cupped in it, which the old man regarded narrowly. Indicating the silver crown with a nod, Kozen said, “Go on, take it. With this, you can do far better than a meat pie that likely explains the absence of stray cats around here.”
“Hmmh,” the old man grunted, but snatched up the coin anyway, making it disappear into his shabby cloak. He took another bite of his popkin almost defiantly, smacking his grease-smeared lips. “Not sayin’ I know this outlaw priest of yers, but what ya want from him if’n I did?”
“You know as well as I, how the Telarian church has lost its way,” said Kozen, seizing the opening. “As have almost all the clergy throughout Lunare, even those who follow other gods. It’s become all preaching, and no doing.”
“I know no such thing,” complained the old man around the mouthful of dough and meat. With a horny thumbnail, he hooked a small bit of gristle from between two yellowed teeth and, after glancing at it, flicked it onto the snowy ground. “Those priests also say that presuming to ask for anything is rude and disrespectful. That it’s better to have faith without questions or demands. That’s what they say.”
It was with some small amusement that Kozen knew full well he’d found exactly the man he’d been looking for. The ‘senile old fool’ act was only that–a sham. Even as he watched, the hidden priest straightened from his stooping slouch, and his speech began losing most of its quaver and the lower-class mannerisms. Though clearly an extremely aged man, he no longer looked as if he was but one short pace away from his own grave. They’d each acknowledged the other as what he seemed, even if neither spoke it aloud.
“So now the prayers are said in words that nobody understands–sometimes not even the priests,” Kozen countered, still speaking quietly. “The few ‘miracles’ allowed here in Telaria are only those authorized with the expressed consent of the Bishopric council. Only during the most hallowed ceremonies are the candles lit without a taper, or the Celebrant levitated above the worshippers briefly–and only the Bishops do this. It’s much the same, if perhaps to a lesser official degree, elsewhere in other kingdoms and in the Empire. Clerical powers everywhere have been disappearing through apathy and atrophy. To what purpose?”
“Mayhap,” the old man acknowledged. “But rumor has it a few country priests remain who still have some power and can help heal the sick and so on.”
“And when these country priests pass away, they’ll be replaced by younger ones who don’t even know that much. Ones who then will claim that death by wet-lung or a burst heart is actually the will of the Great Ruler.”
“How do you know it’s not for the best?” asked the priest, watching Kozen closely. “Those same fables say that the clerics in the olden times got those powers and abilities from the gods to fight the wizards. With the wizard magic long gone, what purpose do these powers have any more except as a temptation to a different kind of evil. Maybe we’re better off without them–have you considered that?”
“I can’t speak to that point,” Kozen admitted, gesturing with an open hand. “But it’s a question only meriting consideration if there is no wizardry to oppose.”
Fixing him with an intent gaze, the elderly priest demanded, “What makes you say there is? Eh? Tell me that, son. Wizardry is forbidden, everyone knows that. Has been for a thousand years.”
“I should think the reason obvious,” said Kozen. “Because I’ve seen it.”
“So you say,” the old man replied skeptically, as he finished his popkin, wiping the grease from his hands and lips on a nether corner of his moth-eaten cloak. “Assuming you’re not just having me on, what makes you think I can do anything to help? What do you really want? An entire silver crown is a lot of money just to argue theology with an old fool. The Great Ruler’s priests will do it for free–provided you’re smart enough to agree with them, whatever you might actually believe.”
“True,” allowed Kozen. “But of all the organized religions of Lunare–even if it was possible for me to reach any of the others outside Telaria–it’s the Church of the Great Ruler that’s fallen the farthest from what it once was. So I came seeking you, because I’d heard that the Old Faith remained faithful to the traditions.”
“Aye, it has, for the most part,” admitted the priest. “On the other hand, rumor has it that the Charhai stayed truest to their ways. Praying five times a day and all that. Wouldn’t help you though, since they don’t talk to infidels.”
Kozen nodded and said, “Even if they did, they’re too far to be of use to me. So I seek the next best thing.”
“‘To be of use,'” the priest repeated. “So it’s not the Old Faith itself or any other teachings you’re after now is it? You’re not looking to learn anything, you just want someone who can work miracles, is that it? This isn’t about wizardry at all, I’ll wager. Let me guess–you’ve got a sick relative at home, and your own cleric says simply to pray. And you prayed and nothing happened. Do I have it right?”
“No, it’s as I said,” Kozen insisted. “I happen to know to a near certainty that someone has found the lost lore of those wizards–and has been using it. He has to be stopped, or we risk another holocaust.”
“Know?” inquired the old man, tilting his head and raising his right eyebrow almost comically. “Or believe?”
“All right,” admitted Kozen, shrugging. “It’s belief. I have no proof, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling. And compelling enough for me to risk my life in the attempt. What I need is power to surpass his, which appears to be both considerable and increasing. Can you help?”
“I should ask you, Brother Athesis,” said the other, laying a gnarled forefinger alongside his long nose. “Why don’t you find the old clerical power for yourself. If Tos isn’t listening to his priests’ prayers anymore, maybe you should ask one of the other deities.”
Damn… recognized again, Kozen fumed silently. This ill-advised visit to Eleahome was devolving towards seemingly inevitable disaster. He dare stay not one hour longer than necessary, he knew now. “I am no longer a priest. I’m…Excommunicate. There is no god or goddess whose ears would be open to anything I might say. That is why I want you to ask yours, if you are willing and able. I’d have thought this obvious by now.”
The priest of the Old Faith laughed as if he found this uproariously funny. “You have put yourself in a fine barrel of brine, haven’t you, son?” he chortled, slapping his knee. “I suppose that thinking yourself soulless does make things easier in some ways though, doesn’t it? Think you can’t sin because you’re already damned, right?”
This was going nowhere. With growing irritation, Kozen demanded, “Look, will you or will you not help me? You already knew who I was, so surely you’ll also realize that I dare not stand here in public, debating metaphysics with an old heretic.”
Sighing, the priest sobered quickly. “I’m sorry, son,” he apologized. “I wasn’t poking fun at you, truly, but I’m too far past my prime to be of much help. And even if I wasn’t, the Triune God is one who…well, he’s never been one to meddle directly in the affairs of men. There’s some, like Jonas and Acquiel for instance, sending dolphins to rescue sailors lost at sea, or Laurallin with her healing. Tos used to be favored by warrior-priests–and don’t you be giving me the wall-eyed look, it’s true and you know it. Seems to me, it’d be one of those who’d do you the most good, if it’s a genuine reborn wizard you intend to fight.”
Irritation giving way to dejection, Kozen asked without hope, “Then can you possibly guide me to one who does have the power I need? Not a rescuer of sailors or a healer. Rather, someone with the means to oppose wizardry directly?”
The other looked down, giving it several moments thought before answering. “Aye, possibly,” he said finally. “The Three-in-One isn’t much for those other things I mentioned, but there is one area he’s known for. His specialty, some might even say.”
“Auguries, visions, and prophecies,” said the wizened priest, whose actual name Kozen was destined never to learn.
Kozen would’ve preferred to spend the next several hours in the comfort of a tavern taproom somewhere. Or anyplace warm. However, with word of his presence in the city sure to be spreading, he dared not risk being anywhere around people.
Instead, he spent the time waiting in a narrow tenement alley, in the cold. He’d stacked and arranged a number of the large, empty wooden boxes he found there, most of them broken in some manner or other, into a kind of haphazard shelter. Inside, he huddled and shivered, wrapped tightly in both cloak and bedroll.
Overhead, visible through the gaps in the crates, the gray wooden buildings on either side of the alley seemed to lean drunkenly towards each other, less than an arm-span apart at their third story rooflines, but at least they cut the chilly wind somewhat. If only the occasional shifting breeze didn’t bring the smell of carelessly emptied chamber-pot contents his way from time to time.
Before long, the inadequate half-eaten hot bowl of stew from earlier became but a memory and a regret. He berated himself for not grabbing the bread or something from the kitchens on his way out of the tavern earlier. He tried to nap, but sleep came only fitfully as afternoon slowly turned to twilight and thence to night. Every time there was the slightest noise, he snapped wide awake, hand dropping to his sword-hilt. Once, he felt a momentary panic when he heard the squeak of a rat–but these rodents turned out to be of the ordinary kind, not Abominations. Not like those armored, poison-spitting rats…
After speaking with the priest, Kozen had wanted to proceed right away, get his answers all the sooner so he could leave the city as soon as possible. The priest had demurred though, saying the effort would be considerable and that he needed to pray and meditate for a long while before beginning such an exceedingly taxing invocation.
Kozen was to come to the old bell tower, the ruined remnant of King Chelgar’s former castle stronghold, an hour after midnight. No sooner. Furthermore, he was to bring a substantial donation of gold. In reply to Kozen’s angry glower, the priest had said blandly that even an illegal church needed money to operate. Apparently, Kozen thought to himself, the Old Faith’s meager followers were proving inadequate to their own religion. The begging might be no sham.
Either that, or the decrepit priest merely knew a desperate man when he saw one. He wouldn’t be the first holy man to gouge every possible coin from someone in need, and he’d be far from the last.
When the church bells rang the midnight hour, Kozen awoke from his light, chilly doze. The ringing peals echoed across the city, a sound so familiar, so representative of all the things he’d lost, it wrenched at his heart. So many things, gone.
Although he was certain he’d never pray again, there was still a use to be had in being able to meditate quietly. Besides, he needed to get himself fully awake and clear-headed for what would come. Thus, when the bells silenced and all that remained were the constant city noises of Eleahome itself, Kozen crawled out from his hiding place. He resettled himself beside the stacks of crates, sitting cross-legged atop his bedroll on the rough, ice-crusted cobblestones. It was hard both on his backside and his knees, but these were merely pains, and pain could be dismissed as nothing more than an unwanted sensation.
With steady breaths, he slowly emptied his mind of everything. The feeling of the hard stones under him. The tickle on the back of his head. The scratch of his wool cloak. The sights and sounds of Eleahome. Even the cold faded from awareness. He kept his eyes open, though, for it would not do for someone to come upon him unaware.
No one came, however, and time passed with glacial slowness. When he judged that roughly half of that first hour had passed, Kozen climbed to his feet and made his way southwest into the more prosperous sections of the city, the half-moon providing enough light for his dark-adapted eyes to make out the way.
Rickety wooden buildings gradually gave way to better-constructed ones, and eventually to larger homes and businesses of brick and stone. He even passed not far from the outer castle walls–something he wouldn’t have dared had King Leopold been in the city. With hood up though and his cloak tightly furled about himself, Kozen didn’t worry overly about being discovered.
Beyond the castle, however, the buildings along the avenues declined somewhat in quality, as if gone to seed. Homes and shops that had once seen better days, but which were in a no longer quite fashionable neighborhood. A short distance further, just as the bells rang the hour once more, Kozen drew near to the ruins he sought.
Set apart from everything else atop a small rise, the gate and bell tower dated back to King Chelgar’s day, Kozen knew. This would have been over a hundred years ago, when the independent kingdom of Stromis had been annexed back into ‘Greater Telaria.’ For whatever reason, upon Eleahome’s defeat and the deliberate demolition of Chelgar’s old castle, these remnants remained–a section of wall with a large, open gateway through it, and a tall bell tower just beside.
An old story had it that after defeating Chelgar’s forces, Willem ordered the castle taken down, and the stones reused in the construction of the newer one now occupied by King Leopold, to the northeast. The tale further said that for some reason, that command was simply never carried out fully. That the orders had been always thwarted by an odd series of coincidences, and thus the gate and tower remained standing.
Interesting that this should be, because under normal circumstances, the land alone still would’ve been considered quite valuable. Someone ought to have finished the demolition and built something else here by now. Yet no one had.
Once he came under the cover of broken stonework and drifts of old snow, Kozen looked for any sign of pursuit or observation, but detected none.
Moving then from shadow to shadow, Kozen quickly crossed the remaining distance to the bell tower. When he reached the thick postern door at the base, he thumped it thrice with his fist, a dull sound which did not carry well. When nothing happened for a minute, he knocked again, harder.
This time the door opened, the elderly priest standing there clad in elegant but threadbare heavy green vestments. Beyond him, inside the large tower and lit only by the silvery light of the waxing half-moon, Kozen could make out the dim shadows of a jumbled ruin, great heaps of stone and broken wood looming high. Silently, the old man gestured Kozen inside and closed the door.
It was nearly pitch black inside, so Kozen waited, thinking the priest would light a candle or lamp. But no, instead his hand was taken by another that felt more like bone than skin and flesh. The priest led him unerringly through the debris, along an unseen twisting path. Only after they passed through another doorway and to a descending set of stairs did the old man finally release Kozen’s hand.
Very softly, in the darkness, the priest whispered, “Fersai.”
There came a flickering, like fire, but of a peculiar greenish hue. Kozen couldn’t see its source however, because the priest was turned away from him. By time the other turned back, the emerald glow had been replaced by a brighter golden one–a small brass oil lamp in the priest’s hand, now lit. “Didn’t want to risk the light being seen,” explained the priest, coughing a little, the motion making the tiny flame quiver. “Cracks in the tower walls.”
Before they continued, the priest told Kozen he could leave his pack behind an overturned table just outside the stairs. Kozen did this, after removing his heavy winter cloak and stuffing it into the pack as well.
After an interminable descent down the narrow, spiral stone staircase, they reached a series of corridors. It seemed a virtual maze down here in these catacombs, but the priest led without hesitation. They passed through countless halls and rooms and chambers, most empty, but some few were filled with old bits of broken furniture or other garbage, long picked-over for anything of worth. One room even had a small natural spring running through it, partially flooding the gouged stone floor. In time, they reached a pair of large, ornate, but rotting oak doors. The old man pulled one open and, with the lamp, gestured for Kozen to go in.
Together, they entered the Old Faith temple under the city. Even as they passed through the doors, the priest began chanting softly, in words Kozen did not recognize.
In contrast to the rest of what he’d seen down here, the temple was a large, well-lit chamber of worked stone, clean and well-maintained, about forty feet wide by about twice that deep, perhaps a little more. A series of torches burned in cast-iron brackets along the back wall, as did candles in similarly-styled iron holders along the sides. Polished wooden benches arranged in precise rows filled most of the small temple, the high ceiling above supported by pairs of thick stone columns running the length of the chamber, sixteen in all. Still more candles adorned the altar at the far end–a large, heavy, unadorned oak table standing upon a dais reached by three marble steps. Two chairs of the same wood were positioned on either side of the altar. Unlike the doors at the entrance, all the wood furniture in here looked to be free of dust, in good repair, and glistening with fresh oil.
About ten feet up on the wall behind the altar, over a stylized bas-relief of the sun, an intricate statue stood in a dome-shaped niche. The statue depicting the head of a lion was nearly the height of a man and made of a silvery metal. It shone and glittered in the candlelight. Platinum? Kozen wondered, but couldn’t tell. It certainly wasn’t mere silver. A wide arch of gold crowned the statue’s niche and without a doubt, the thing would be worth a king’s ransom. Kozen could not help but feel a stab of resentment, unconsciously comparing this with the money he was to be charged for nothing more than a ‘vision.’
Ahead of him, the priest in his heavy green vestments turned to the right and gestured with one withered and liver-spotted hand, indicating Kozen should follow. The old man wouldn’t look at him though, nor did he cease the droning chant.
Kozen remained unmoving, still staring at the lion statue. He felt as if he was standing on a precipice and a sensation like vertigo made the room spin around him. It turned slowly, first clockwise, then counterclockwise, the whole world revolving on an axis that was the statue. Only the lion remained a fixed point of stability as the universe wheeled around it.
Initially, Kozen thought he was looking at nothing more than a very realistic lion’s head, a masterpiece of sculpture, to be sure–setting aside the value of its metal–but only that. Soon, he realized this wasn’t just an ordinary, generic depiction. Rather it was The Lion, the statue somehow conveying the symbolic epitome of all things the great cat represented in lore and myth. The eyes of the Lion gleamed with reflected candlelight and the flickering made the halo of its mane seem to wave, as if in a breeze. The mouth stood partially open, revealing a row of sharp fangs, ready to tear and rend. Behind the Lion, Kozen could almost see the rustling grasses of the Joran plains. Staring into the Lion’s eyes, he felt a pang of dread fear, like prey recognizing the inexorable approach of the predator. He found himself thinking about strength and will, courage and fierceness.
Unbidden, a memory rose within him–a time, years ago, when he undertook the Long Fast. He fell into the recollection, unbelievably vivid, as if into a dream.
Or a nightmare.
Kozen lay unmoving, curled around himself in the small, square cell. The once-white robe he wore was now splotched all over with gray and brown, except for two darker spots near his knees. His hands and face were filthy and his hair pointed in all directions. He was musing in a half-panicked, half-excited way how when he’d ran his hands through his hair this morning (Had it been morning? He couldn’t know…), two fairly large clumps had come loose in his fingers. His hair was falling out?
It will grow back. Sure it will. Just as soon as he started eating again, which should be tomorrow if his count of the days past was correct. He was not sure because he’d kept the number in his head, and without food his memory had become uncertain. He might have made marks on the wall or found some other means of recording the number, but such things were forbidden.
If only he’d been allowed to bring some books from the Great Library–or even a single book, which he would have read and re-read gladly, cover to cover. But this was forbidden as well.
His gaze was inevitably drawn back to that which occupied the other half of his cell: A large platter filled with fresh-baked bread and fragrant aged cheese. Beside the platter stood a goblet and a pitcher, filled with fine wine. Even though there were no light sources within the cell, the small barred opening in the locked door and the cunningly placed torches beyond it created a stream of golden light that shone upon the food, making it seem like a gift from the Great Ruler himself.
Although his cell was small and cramped, Kozen’s position in it, with his back against the rear wall and his legs clenched up to his chest, made it only more so. He kept his eyes open, though, because that was the only way he could keep from snatching up the bread and cheese and stuffing his mouth with it. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” he kept whispering to himself. One more day…
As a former soldier of the Royal Guard, he was used to privation. After all, what soldier hadn’t gone for a day, two days, or even a hand of days on short rations? But this was far, far worse.
First of all, the time without any food at all had never been this long before. What’s more, he had always had some task to keep him busy, even if it was just putting one foot down in front of the other on an endless dusty road. Or doing the back-breaking work of digging a latrine.
No, what made this far more terrible was that he had to spend every single waking moment–and even some sleeping moments–completely and painfully aware of a delicious meal not more than an arm’s reach away.
With his eyes open, and especially with the tears that occasionally came and blurred his vision, he could almost pretend that the food was an illusion, a false image sent by the Evil Ones to tempt him from his fast. When his lids fell closed, however, something worse than the sight of the food tempted him: The smell.
The scent of the oven-fresh wheat bread filled his nose, and with it, the savor of the small crock of melting butter. Under the pervasive odor of the bread was the tang of several different cheeses–the mellow, sweet cheese that was Eleahome’s own specialty, the sour blue-and-green veined cheese of North Ulmber, and the bright yellow (and very spicy) variety from the desert people, the Charhai, in the east. And mingled with all these smells was the unmistakable–and terrible–aroma of Larandian white, Kozen’s favorite wine.
Every day, the food was different. Yesterday had been especially bad, as the platter contained a large pot of steaming beef stew, filled to the brim. With tears streaming helplessly down his face, he couldn’t pull his eyes away from the chunks of skillet-browned meat, the pieces of gravy-coated potatoes and carrots. The smell, so delicious, so awful, made him retch and gag.
Even after the hot food cooled, its smell lingered in the tiny cell. Kozen thought he could even detect all the previous days’ uneaten meals pervading the very cloth of his robes.
At a time Kozen supposed was morning–although it could have been noon or evening or the middle of the night for all he knew–a white robed figure would arrive to take away the old food and leave in its place something new. While the brothers took up the platter, examining it carefully to see if anything had been disturbed, Kozen would be given his only permitted sustenance of the day, a large flagon of lukewarm salted water. Some days they gave him two, although how they decided this, he could not figure.
Each day’s meal was different, yet every time they left a pitcher of Larandian white. Do they know? Kozen wondered. Were they bringing that particular wine precisely because it was his favorite? It was no secret among those who knew him, but still…why?
Kozen’s tall frame filled much of the cell, and although he could have spread out some and made himself more comfortable, he couldn’t bring himself to do so. To unbend at all would bring some portion of his body in contact with the offering of forbidden delicacies, and somehow he knew if that happened, he would break his fast. “Tomorrow,” he croaked. “One more day, and I’ll be free to–”
But he couldn’t complete the thought without feeling the skittering fingers of madness, pulling and tugging him toward the sustenance just a few feet away. It seemed as if a vast hole had opened in his stomach and mind and soul were sliding, swirling through it, like water down a drainpipe.
The few times when he could pull his gaze away from the food, it inevitably drifted toward the bottom of the locked wooden door and the odd scratch marks near the bottom.
Once, in the acolytes’ common room where all sorts of gossip was wont to spring up, he had heard one young brother-aspirant whisper that those who failed the Long Fast stayed locked in their cells, shut away until they were able to go an entire thirty day period without touching the food. Some, the acolyte went on, failed so completely that their minds snapped. Even if they did through some miracle manage to complete the Long Fast, the brothers who took care of the mad ones could no longer dare to let them out.
Could the last occupant of this cell have been one of those poor unfortunates?
Perhaps failed brother would have been a frail stick-like figure, gobbling and swilling down the food when it was brought each day, stuffing himself, yet receiving no nourishment from it. Each day when new meal arrived–the grilled mutton steaks, dripping with savory juices, the steaming egg noodles, the fruit-filled sweetrolls–would this crazed, failed acolyte leap upon it, stuffing his mouth, barely pausing to chew as he filled his distended belly?
Maybe he spent days…months…years…squatting in the corner, his eyes blazing with hunger and madness, dreaming of roast turkey, buttered potatoes, sweet cream-filled pastries. Maybe the scratch marks on the door were his feeble attempts to claw and dig his way through, to make his way to the kitchens below where he could eat and feast and gorge himself. And when he finally died after years of raving madness, could not his spirit have remained behind to torment and tempt those who occupied his old cell?
Eventually, sleep came to Kozen, a long, lonely, black time without dreams. Dreaming took energy and he had none.
After an unknowable period of time, Kozen woke to hear the sound of the key being turned in the door lock. Blinking several times, he tried to stand up.
He managed to heave himself upright, but a wave of dizziness washed over him. He took two tottering steps and slumped against the cold stone wall. One of the white-robed brothers came in to remove the untouched platter of bread and cheese, and as he put it on a small, wheeled cart, the second brother did as he did every day and came in to examine Kozen.
Kozen himself could see nothing of this brother’s face, which was lost in the shadows of his raised hood, the only light coming from behind him. Still, as Kozen gazed back at the blank darkness, a soft white hand gently lifted his unshaven chin and stared into his green-gray eyes. For the first time, as he noticed that hand, he realized it was small and slender, the fingertips delicate and pointed.
A woman? I didn’t know the Brothers of the Long Fast admitted women. He was still marveling over this fact when the hand withdrew, and he felt a touch at his chest. Looking down, he saw the “brother” held a large cracked ceramic flagon, filled with more than a quart of warm water. Kozen knew it would taste ever so slightly of the pinch of salt they added to it. The small, feminine hand pushed it at him again.
What? Kozen was confused. Something was terribly wrong here.
Dumbly, he took the flagon and drained it. The flagon was taken way, and refilled from a pitcher on the cart. He drank that as well.
With a sudden realization, Kozen realized that he’s somehow miscounted the days. Today would not be the end.
But then which day was it? Sick with fear, his stomach threatened to disgorge the only sustenance it would receive today. Would tomorrow be the end? Or the day after?
Another, more terrifying idea emerged from the black pit of his belly: What if the brothers had decided that he’d gone insane? The one who looked into his eyes, what if she saw madness in him? Would they imprison him here forever?
The horror turned his knees to mud. He sank down with his back to the wall, legs folded up against his chest, and fists clenched tight against the wide open “O” of his mouth.
Out in the torch-lit hallway, the first brother uncovered a roast pheasant, stuffed with walnuts and glazed with mint jelly, surrounded with baked potatoes and onions. He took the tray into the cell. After setting the platter down on the floor, he added a clean goblet and a fresh pitcher of Larandian white.
With a feeling akin to the panic he’d experienced back then, Kozen forced the unwanted memory away. Blinking hard, he realized he was still in the temple under the castle ruins.
What in fact happened was that his count had been off by a single day. He’d managed to resist eating the roast pheasant and in time his hunger-maddened panic faded into a near-delirious doze. The next thing he knew, when he came more fully back to consciousness again, two brothers were helping him down the corridors, his feet barely touching the floor. They took Kozen to the Infirmary, where he would be slowly reintroduced to food and drink, his shut-down stomach and bowels coaxed back to their normal functioning. The lost hair hadn’t been due to the privation, either–rather, Kozen had pulled it out, unknowing.
In the years since the Long Fast, those moments of doubt and terror continued to haunt him. Every now and then, he still had nightmares about it and in those, the Fast never ended. Upon waking from these, he was always hard pressed to bring himself to eat anything at all.
Now, in this strange, forgotten temple of the Old Faith beneath Eleahome, Kozen did not like the fact he seemed to have been forced to relive it, in a manner more vivid than any nightmare or ordinary memory. Was this what the old priest had meant when he said the Triune God specialized in visions? How could that best-forgotten horror possibly be of any help against Leopold?
Despite the seeming duration of the dream or vision or whatever it was, Kozen saw that in reality only mere seconds had passed, not hours. The old priest just now reached the back corner of the rows of benches, about to start down the aisle between them and the stone wall. He paused a moment and, without stopping his low, rheumy chant, gestured again for Kozen to follow him.
Shaking himself into motion, Kozen trailed after the priest, but his eyes kept wandering unwillingly back to the lion statue. It made him uneasy. Obviously, it held some kind of power.
After a few steps, Kozen lost sight of the altar and statue, his view blocked by the stone pillars. He glanced upwards, trying to follow the polished pink-hued granite to the high ceiling but could not. The torches lit only the first fifty feet or so, and the columns continued up into the blackness for an unknowable distance.
As Kozen and the priest turned the frontmost corner and started toward the dais, he was able once more to see the altar. Against his will, his gaze slid back again up toward the statue’s niche. With a shock that caused him to miss a step and nearly trip, the statue no longer depicted a lion’s head.
It was The Hawk.
How can that be? Kozen wondered, baffled. Trick of the light?
Like the Lion’s eyes, the Hawk’s also glittered in the torch- and candlelight. Even from this distance, Kozen could see the delicate tracery of the feathers in its upswept wings. Its beak stood partially open as the Lion’s mouth had, and a tiny star of light shone from the downturned razor-sharp tip.
As he drew closer, Kozen thought the look in the Hawk’s eyes reminded him of someone. It was comforting, the gaze of the Hawk, but hard–rather like the love of a stern father.
Another vision seized him as a raptor would seize a rabbit and hauled him away. Kozen could almost hear the Hawk’s piercing screech.
Kozen and his father walked together in an open field near his home, a field laying fallow this year and filled with sweet-smelling clover. It was a sunny day of early summer, the sky clear but for a few, inconsequential puffs of vapor high in the otherwise unmarred azure. Sunlight streamed down from almost directly overhead, bright but not fierce.
For his own part, Kozen was filled with the surging excitement that any boy of twelve years will feel when he’s doing something for the first time, something once forbidden. His heartbeat raced and he felt a powerful urge to gallop from one end of the field to the other.
He did not run, however, because his father was watching him and he wanted to look mature.
Kozen smiled up at his father, a man with rough features, somewhat scarred by the pox he’d caught as a child. He’d always refused to grow a beard though, and in his meticulous fashion shaved every morning. His hair was thick and brown, though graying, much as Kozen’s would be in thirty years’ time. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue, eyes that stared through you, eyes that seemed to know everything that went on in your mind and heart.
Alton Athesis was not looking at his son now though as they came to a halt, but rather at the three bales of hay stacked about twenty yards away. In front of the top bale hung a foot-square swatch of white cloth, crudely daubed with lampblack to make a large “X.” Behind the hay were several thick planks, placed at an angle between the top of the bales and the ground. The crossbow bolts that went through the hay would hit these and either stick to them or be deflected down. In neither case would the shafts be lost, and this was an important point. “Crossbow bolts never come cheap,” his father had said on more than one occasion. “Nor are they easy to make. You just ask a fletcher someday. One good bolt is as dear as five hands of ordinary arrows.”
Kozen’s father carried the crossbow, an old weapon from the one of the many wars with Naran raiders. It, too, was scarred and pitted like his father’s face but the device still functioned, and his father always kept the wood oiled and the spring-steel prod strung. When he practiced with it, which he did once each month except during the coldest part of winter, he always restrung the crossbow with a new gut-string. The used ones he discarded, even though they usually showed little sign of fraying. When Kozen asked why, his father had explained that not only could a broken string completely destroy the crossbow, you could lose a few fingers or get yourself a broken arm or leg at the same time in payment.
Kozen almost never missed these practice sessions, though until today he had only watched.
Now standing in the sunlit field, Kozen’s father braced his foot in the iron half-ring bolted at the front of the crossbow stock and drew the string. With a small click, the trigger mechanism caught and held it. Then, he reached over his shoulder and pulled one of the bolts from the quiver slung across his back. He placed the bolt in the groove on the stock and nocked it snug, stroking the stiff fletches with a forefinger to be sure they lay evenly.
Finally, he handed the crossbow to his son. “Careful there,” he rumbled as the boy reached eagerly for the weapon. “Keep your hand away from the trigger until you mean to shoot it. And never–I mean never–point it at anything you don’t mean to shoot. Not even when it isn’t cocked or loaded.”
Sobered, Kozen accepted the crossbow from his father. He held it away from his body, but not too far, as if it were both a poisonous viper coiled to strike and a priceless, fragile vase.
“No, no–hold it like you mean it,” Alton said, almost as if reading his thoughts. “If you don’t master the weapon, the weapon will master you. And probably shoot you in the foot for your trouble.”
Kozen straightened and tried to emulate the way he’d seen his father hold it, the butt under his right arm and the stock in his left hand, with his right hand helping to support it. It wasn’t nearly as easy as his father made it seem. Already, the immense weight of the thing dragged the front end down.
“Careful when you aim and don’t pull that trigger until you’re sure you’re gonna hit the target,” Kozen’s father said. “Chances are, you’ll miss the first few times anyway. But so help me,” he poked a finger at Kozen’s chest. “If you shoot wild and lose the bolt, I’ll take the cost of it out of your hide.”
Kozen swallowed and nodded. “I’ll be careful, Da,” he said in a voice that almost didn’t crack.
Alton crooked one side of his pox-scarred mouth in a half-smile and took up a position a step or two behind him, arms crossed and his legs spread firmly. “When you shoot it, keep the stock up against your shoulder. Hold it steady and sight along the bolt and through the hole at the end. Both eyes open. And when you’re ready to fire, release your breath and squeeze the trigger. Squeeze! Don’t pull or jerk!”
Solemnly, Kozen did as he was told. At first, he couldn’t find the sight, but there it was, mounted on a small adjustable metal frame near the front of the stock, just beyond the prod. It took him several seconds to master the trick of seeing the target through the hole while keeping both eyes open. Eventually, he positioned the middle of the “X” target in the hole. Kozen breathed out and squeezed the trigger.
When it didn’t fire, he pulled harder. Surely it should have gone off by now. His chest grew tight, needing air now. He considered telling his father that maybe the mechanism was jammed somehow–
Suddenly, the crossbow fired. The shot went wild, missing the hay bales by a full arm-span. The bolt flew into the woods at the far side of the field, swallowed by the thick foliage.
Kozen turned around with a lump in his throat. I’m sorry, he wanted to plead. I thought it wasn’t working right–
The threatened beating paled beside the thought that perhaps his father would never let him fire the crossbow again. That he would look down on his son, and tell his friends at the tavern, “Yeah, that’s my son out there, the clod, the one who’ll never amount to anything.”
Wordlessly, his father held out his hands for the weapon, and just as mutely, Kozen gave it to him. His father cleared his throat and said, “You made a mistake. You know that don’t you?”
This is it, he’ll disown me any second now, Kozen thought, unable to speak. He settled for nodding.
“You didn’t squeeze steadily,” his father said. “Probably because you didn’t know how much pressure it would take to fire the crossbow. So you jerked the trigger and lost the bolt. An understandable error, but now you know. I could have let you fire it empty, but the lesson would not have been as well-learned as I’m sure it is now.” Bracing the stock with his foot as he re-cocked the string, he added, “Don’t let it happen again.”
He loaded a new bolt and handed the crossbow back to his disbelieving son. With a movement of his head, he indicated that Kozen should try once more.
As Kozen aimed the crossbow, the boy heard his father say in a low voice, “Same thing happened to me the first time. We’ll go look for that bolt later–might not be completely lost.”
Alton didn’t see the grin on his son’s face. Kozen released his breath and squeezed the trigger. The crossbow fired.
The bolt passed clean through the upper right corner of the target and made a loud thunk as it slammed deep into the wood planking.
As the vision faded, Kozen remembered that a month or two later, he had lost a bolt into the woods, and his father kept his promise and had taken the cost of it out of his backside and in extra chores. On the other hand, the crossbow lessons continued anyway, through that summer and three more, and by the last, the boy had grown strong enough to cock the bow himself, though with some difficulty. Kozen had no siblings and his mother died some years back of typhus, when he was only seven. Though grief had driven them apart, this activity drew father and son together once more.
The year he turned fifteen, Kozen had asked his father if he intended to give him the crossbow someday. The senior Athesis simply laughed at the notion. “Give you my crossbow?” he’d asked with incredulity. “Are you addled, boy? You’ll get this one when I’m dead and no sooner. The steel prod alone is worth a small fortune. I paid dearly for that weapon, with years of my life as a common soldier, and if you really want one you’ll do the same. Join the King’s army.”
Kozen had done exactly that, two summers later, and served in the Royal Guard with distinction, rising steadily from enlisted to officer rank. Upon being promoted to captain, he even re-swore his oath of fealty to King Stepan himself, Leopold’s father.
Kozen did inherit that old crossbow, in time. However, by then he had no need of it, and ended up selling it for the money to buy a decent officer’s horse and a better sword than was standard issue. The old crossbow was indeed valuable, good spring-steel being a relatively rare commodity, but Kozen learned that his father had been exaggerating somewhat as to its real worth.
Then came that awful business down in Nara and, well, nothing had been the same after that. At least the father had been spared his son’s shame and dishonor.
With this thought, Kozen returned fully to himself. Once again, only seconds had elapsed. First the Long Fast, and now this, he wondered, confused. Why two so utterly dissimilar visions?
The first was merely part of the lengthy process that went into his becoming a priest of the Great Ruler. Every acolyte of Tos endured the Great Fast eventually, some more than once. As for the second vision, Kozen supposed that in a way, the business with the crossbow had been the earliest genesis of his having become a soldier, and later, an officer.
If this Triune God was trying to tell him something, he had not the slightest clue what it might be. Is he taunting me with the things I’ve lost?
The old priest began busying himself with lighting more candles. After this was done, he used a pair of metal tongs to ignite a small lump of charcoal and, once lit, blew upon it until the nugget glowed cherry red. With his free hand, the priest removed the top of a large brass brazier which sat atop the altar, next to a wooden bowl filled with a heap of fine ochre powder. After popping the glowing charcoal into the brazier, he took up a spoon of an ornate design similar to that of the tongs. With it, he measured three large spoonfuls of the reddish powder and dumped those into the brazier as well and replaced its top.
Instantly, a thick, green-brown smoke began swirling up from the filigreed vents in the brazier. A sickly-sweet perfume filled the air.
The priest only made things worse by swinging the brazier on its chain, three times about himself, before setting it down on the floor, where it continued to fume and smoke. Finally, the old man looked over to Kozen and said simply, “This may take a while. Please be patient. Sit if you like.” Then, he resumed the low, mumbling chant in his rheum-thickened voice and knelt on the bare stone floor before the altar.
In an effort to get clear of the cloying, dizzying odor, Kozen moved away, down the three steps and toward the frontmost of the wooden benches. Intending to sit down to wait, he dared another glance up at niche. To his surprise, the statue had transformed back into the Lion.
An idea occurred to him, and he took a few paces to the right. The statue became the Hawk. Back to the left, from a position more nearly centered before the altar, it was the Lion again. As he studied this effect, Kozen found he couldn’t say exactly when it transitioned from Lion to Hawk, or Hawk to Lion, and yet it was never both.
Paying no attention the priest now, and trying without success to ignore the heavy incense, Kozen moved to the left side of the subterranean temple.
From the left, the statue suddenly became the head of a deer, The Buck. Kozen counted twenty one points on the huge antlers rising up toward the golden half-dome; ten points on the left antler, eleven on the right. The eyes of this incarnation did not gleam, but instead seemed to absorb light. At first, he thought they were black, but now he saw that in fact the orbs were a deep, dark purple, the color of the sky on a moonless night. The color of the spaces between the stars, a void reaching down to pull you up into the heavens.
An instant later, Kozen found himself reliving yet another memory.
Two of the Elite guard escorted Kozen to the council chamber of the Bishopric, a chamber deep within Leopold’s castle in Eleahome. Each of the guards carried a staff of smooth hardwood, shod at both end with blunt steel tips. Neither wore armor, but were clothed in a belted cloth tunic that reached to a point just above their knees, with soft cotton breeches under it. On their feet, they wore sandals.
Despite the fact that neither had edged weapon or armor just now, Kozen knew that he–and most other men–wouldn’t stand a chance against them in a fight. Even if there’d been only one of the Elite, completely weaponless, and himself fully equipped and armed, Kozen would not have placed a wager on his chances. They were said to be trained in all manner of combat, with and without arms. Kozen also noted with interest that the two men escorting him held their staves on the left. It was said that fully three out of four of the Elite were left-handed, for reasons no one knew. Not that it especially mattered which hand held the staff–they could deal out death equally with either.
The two Elite turned and put their backs to the carved mahogany doors, one at each. The man on the right said in a voice almost completely devoid of inflection, “You will be summoned.”
It was also said that during their arduous training, Elite guard recruits had all of the emotion beaten out of them.
Nothing more was said for long minutes. The guards ignored Kozen as he stood there apparently studying the stylized god-figure on the door. In reality, Kozen was watching both of them and certainly, he thought, they watched him, even though they stared straight ahead.
Then, in response to a signal Kozen neither saw nor heard, the same guard who had spoken before said flatly, “You are summoned.”
As one, the guards turned the door handles and opened the doors. Kozen got one last look at the carven figure on the mahogany, and realized with some small surprise that it bore a resemblance to King Leopold. An idealized version, but Leopold nonetheless. Then again, he reconsidered, maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised after all.
He entered the room and saw the gathered clergy of the Bishopric. The Elite followed him inside and closed the doors, resuming their motionless stance.
The chamber was dark, with only a few candles guttering in small, shielded sconces along the walls. A quartet of tall candles in black iron floor-stands made a square of brighter illumination in their center, a space several paces from the doors. Knowing what was expected of him, Kozen went there, taking the position just inside the square.
On the other side of the room, the Bishopric sat in shadow behind a wide, curved table, its concavity facing towards him. Only the Bishops’ rough outlines could be discerned, aside from the occasional glint of a gem-encrusted miter or robe, six of them in all. The seventh figure in the center, though, captured Kozen’s full attention, for he would not be one of the Bishops.
This one was taller than the others, and somehow conveyed the sense of being the most important person in the room, although he wore only simple dark robes over his clothes. Even without a crown, this one radiated authority and an unspoken demand for obedience.
King Leopold, Kozen realized. He found himself staring into the shadow where Leopold’s face would be. From in that black space, he was certain that two flat, dark eyes stared back into his. Kozen also felt a disturbing, probing sensation, almost as if one Elite had placed one of those metal-shod staves against his forehead and was pushing gently, but firmly.
The largest shape sat just to the left of middle and, recognizing the massive silhouette, Kozen deduced that he must be Archbishop Layton. The Archbishop now spoke in a bass rumble, a voice sounding like two stones being ground against one another, “You are Kozen Athesis, Priest of Eleahome, Servant of the Most Holy Church.”
It was not a question, but the statement and the formal protocol it represented required a specific reply. “I am he,” Kozen answered, taking a short step forward to the center of the lighted space.
“Do you know why you are summoned here?” the rumbling voice asked.
Kozen replied, “I believe so, Your Eminence.”
“While I sit at this table, in this chamber,” Layton said, “I cease to be your superior, as you have recognized me to be. You will address your answers to the Bishopric as a whole.”
Yes, Your Eminence, Kozen almost said, but caught himself. “I understand,” he said.
“Do you know why are you here?”
Kozen paused a moment, phrasing his reply. “I presume it has to do with my research in the Library.”
“It does,” Layton said. “You have been found guilty by this council of willfully disobeying the right and lawful authority of the Holy Church. It’s also been determined that you did this with premeditation and conscious intent.” The voice paused and, hearing a shuffle, Kozen realized that Layton was reading from a piece of parchment. How can he read in this light? he wondered. “Specifically, you were caught reading forbidden records and information.”
The robed-and-hooded shape two to the right from center moved slightly. “Your actions showed clearly you knew you were doing wrong. You tried to conceal it. Why did you persist anyway, in flagrant defiance of the commands of your superiors?”
The words were spoken softly in a woman’s voice, and Kozen knew her to be Bishop Arathia. She also happened to be one of the most dangerous members of the Bishopric; people she didn’t like had a tendency to disappear or die under very normal-seeming circumstances.
Kozen cleared his suddenly dry throat. “I felt I had to,” he finally said.
“That is not an answer,” Arathia said.
“I have no other.” The pressure against his forehead seemed to be increasing, slowly but inexorably. The headache became painful.
Layton’s bass rumble spoke again. “The texts you were reading covered two subjects, both forbidden. One was dark magic, the conjuring of demons, imps, and similar evils. In essence, wizardry. Also, details about the wizard wars. The other information found in your possession included certain sealed royal records.” The miter on Layton’s head shifted upward. “Do you have an explanation?”
The pressure on Kozen’s forehead sharpened, became an iron nail driving into his skull. The unseen eyes of the central figure bored into him. Through clenched teeth, he said, “I had reason to believe that the recent increasing reports of unexplained attacks in the countryside were becoming a threat to the kingdom. I thought it might be related to what wizards were reputed to have done, long ago. I had no intent whatsoever of using such magic myself.”
“I see.” Layton did not sound like he believed the tale. “That does not explain why you also breached the royal records.”
The nail of pain dug deeper into his head, probing. “I felt the situation might represent a direct hazard to His Highness. I have no other explanation.” Kozen continued to stare into Leopold’s unseen face, his gaze locked there.
“Did you find one?” Layton asked.
“No, I didn’t.”
Suddenly, the pressure disappeared. And somehow, Kozen felt certain that Leopold knew he’d been lying. Well, not lying exactly, but leaving out large portions of the truth.
“That is not sufficient,” Arathia said quietly. Then, to the others she said, “Now you know why I’ve been insisting we destroy these evil works. There’s no good to be had in keeping them around and their very presence becomes an irresistible temptation to men such as this one here. We risk another holocaust simply because we cannot do the right thing and bury this unholy knowledge forever.”
Another of the bishops spoke then, one Kozen recognized as Archbishop DiMarisol, whose diocese consisted of Old Telaria and its surrounding lands. He was an unremarkable, portly, balding man in his fifth decade. More importantly, he was known both as a consummate politician in the religious hierarchy, and as intensely loyal to Leopold. “Risky, true,” DiMarisol allowed. “This does indicate we need to take more seriously the security of these documents–a locked room in a non-public location is without a doubt grossly insufficient. However, I would argue that once before we lost nearly everything–every record, all the histories, every shred of advanced knowledge. If not for the contents of church libraries throughout the crescent, we’d have descended into utter barbarism, using stone tools and living like animals.” Arathia looked as if she would speak, but DiMarisol forestalled her with a raised hand. “We keep this particular information not for its own sake, for none of us would dare the blasphemy of wizardry. Rather, we keep it against the possibility of a return of wizards’ magic. If our ancient foes were to come back or somehow be reborn among the evil, ambitious men among us, we would need to know how to fight them. Understanding our enemies’ powers would be the first step in any attempt to defeat them.”
Arathia seemed about to say more in argument, but Layton’s booming voice interrupted her. “This is a discussion we shouldn’t be having here,” he said. “I recommend we table it for another time.”
“Of course,” said Arathia, “you are wise as always. Let us discuss this later.”
Turning his attention back to the accused, Layton asked, “Kozen Athesis, Is there anything else you have to say to this council? Any mitigating circumstances? Any information or defense you wish to present?”
Kozen was at a loss. What else could he say? “No, Your Eminence,” he said, the honorific slipping out by force of habit. “I have nothing else.”
“Pity,” Layton murmured, sighing. He pushed his chair back and stood with a grunt of effort. “It is the judgment of this council that you, Kozen Athesis, are guilty of willfully disobeying Church authority.” At this point, the others all stood as well, all except Leopold. “In addition, you have been judged guilty of wizardry. For these crimes you are, as of this moment, stripped of your title of Priest of Eleahome. This punishment is for the crime of disobeying Church authority.”
In a whisper of silken folds, one of Layton’s huge arms gestured toward the guards. The two Elite stepped forward and took hold of the collar of Kozen’s white priest’s robes. Together, they both gave a mighty yank and tore them from his body, leaving him naked but for a breechcloth and sandals. Kozen strained to resist the urge to cover himself, especially with Arathia right there.
Layton was not finished, however. “Because you willingly sought out knowledge of the dark arts, you are also hereby Excommunicate,” he said, his bass voice shaking slightly. “You may not set foot on sacred ground, upon pain of death. To the Most Holy Church, you no longer exist. Your soul is consigned to the Abyss.”
Kozen knew that in being judged guilty of consorting with Wizards’ magic, he ought to have been burned at the stake, or hung and dismembered. Someone–Layton perhaps–had interceded on his behalf.
“As for breaking the King’s seal, that specific crime falls under his jurisdiction, and therefore it is up to His Highness to–”
“That won’t be necessary,” the monarch replied. “After all, what more could I do? We’ve already condemned him to eternity in the Abyss, and I find that sufficient punishment for his crimes.” There came a brief pause, before Leopold continued, “However, I must act as protector for the kingdom and all the people herein, and it’s still possible he might cause some mischief. I therefore declare him outlaw, in fact and in deed. Let none give him aid, succor, or shelter, lest they suffer the same fate.”
“Highness…” Layton murmured.
“Yes, Eminence, what is it?” asked Leopold.
“I beg your indulgence, Highness,” Layton said. “To banish a man like this, outlawed and all but naked to the elements would be akin to a death sentence. To survive at all, he would be forced to further crimes. At least allow him to visit his room before he’s ejected from the city, to dress himself decently and carry away what he will of his belongings.”
“Fine, fine,” Leopold said impatiently, waving a hand. “Let it not be said I lack mercy. Five minutes though, no more, and only what he can carry without help.”
“Thank you, Highness,” said Layton, inclining his head. “You are indeed merciful.”
Kozen felt Leopold’s unseen eyes follow him as the guards led him away.
With an effort, Kozen wrenched his gaze away from the Buck. However, even the intricate carvings and inlays of the wall behind the altar captured his attention. His eye wound its way through the complex patterns and lines, always leading back to the statue.
He turned and deliberately put his back to the statue and the altar. Long minutes passed, punctuated by the old priest’s endless droning and the thick green-brown haze of incense.
Now, Kozen felt sure of his impressions before. The deity of the Old Faith, the Triune God, was fully aware of Kozen’s status. Former priest, former soldier, now Excommunicate and outlaw. Did that then mean the old man’s chanting and ceremony would prove fruitless? Or was it just this god’s way of saying, ‘I know everything there is to know about you’?
Away from Kozen, in long rows all the way back to the entrance of the Temple, the benches showed the same care as the altar and chairs: They, too, were dusted and oiled, yet he doubted whether anyone had dared to worship here since the castle above fell. Certainly they would’ve stopped coming after the Great Purge, during Stepan’s reign.
Scratching at his graying beard, he counted the benches. At least two hundred and fifty could have worshiped in this place, he guessed. He was a little irritated at himself for his lack of knowledge of the Old Faith, and the other gods and goddesses. He himself had been taught that there was only one God, only one power for Law and Good in the universe. Power obtained anywhere else was prone to be tainted and evil.
If evil is what it takes, Kozen promised himself silently, then that’s what I’ll use. Nothing else matters. Hear that, Triune God? If you object, speak up.
Behind him, Kozen heard a change in the old priest’s chant. The cadence strengthened and the voice became deeper, as if the old man had found a passageway through his phlegm-clogged throat. The rhythm intensified, pounding in time with Kozen’s heart.
“…Klarthi, Sessrom, Herndahl…” the priest kept repeating, again and again, his voice growing still deeper and taking on a resonance that echoed in the underground temple, as if other voices joined his invocation. Kozen felt a strange urge to join the chant, though he resisted and stayed silent.
“…Klarthi, Sessrom, Herndahl…”
He turned around to see the priest now standing, arms outstretched. A nimbus of ghostly fire covered the priest’s hands and head as he shouted, “Klarthi! Sessrom! Herndahl!”
Silver-white flames shot up from the priest’s forehead, illuminating briefly the upper-recesses of the Temple ceiling. For a bare moment, Kozen glimpsed carved shapes that looked like woodlands and animals, creatures which seemed to be in motion, the flora stirred by unseen breezes.
“Kee-ai Sah!” the priest cried.
The conflagration flared and winked out.
When Kozen’s vision cleared , the priest lay in a heap before the oaken altar. Fearing the loss of what he’d come for, Kozen rushed to and knelt over the priest’s body.
Listening, he determined that the old man still lived, although his heartbeat was slow and labored and his breath wheezed wetly. Kozen shook him and lightly slapped his face. “Wake up,” he demanded. “I need to know. Did the augury work?”
The priest groaned and opened his eyes.
“Well?” he said roughly, gripping the front of the priest’s robes. “Did it work?” The frail, ancient man mumbled something. “What?” Kozen said, shaking the priest toward consciousness. “I can’t hear you.”
The priest tried to speak, but no sound came. With his ear next to the priest’s mouth, Kozen heard the faint words, which were little more than barely shaped exhalations.
Then the other said no more, falling unconscious. Kozen shoved the priest down and climbed to his feet. For long, long minutes, he stared up at the statue which, from this position, had turned back into the Lion.
The words the priest had whispered were these: David Anthony Burke.
All this for nothing more than a name? Kozen’s clenched fist shook.
The Darkened Room
David Anthony Burke banged the side of his head against the wall, next to the double-glazed window. His thirteen-year-old body, small for his age, lay sprawled across the chair in his room at the Greenfield Convalescent Care nursing home. He had one arm thrown over the back of the green fabric cushion, the other dangling through the hole between the wooden armrest and the seat. The light blue pajamas he wore had shifted both up and down, the top halfway up his stomach and the bottoms exposing a few inches of pale buttocks. His skin there was the same color as the rest of his body–the pasty, almost transparent pallor of someone who spends too much time indoors.
Outside the window before him, a trio of blue jays fought and tumbled over one another on the lawn, seeking dominance over the seed-filled wooden feeder. David’s hazel eyes pointed in their general direction, but were vague, unfocused. He hummed a single note, his mouth slightly open, and a few drops of spit trailed down the side of his cheek.
He continued to roll his head up and over, knocking against the wall beside the window. He’d been doing this for nearly an hour.
Just then, a nurse came in and, muttering a few mild curses to himself, moved the chair away from the window and David along with it. The boy stopped humming instantly. Otherwise, he displayed no sign of volition or awareness.
The nurse, a man of about thirty with a severe case of acne and whose name was Karl, turned the chair to face the safety-glassed window more directly. “Geez, David!” he said as he lifted the boy’s unresponsive form into a sitting position. “You’re gonna give yerself a concussion.” Karl put slippers back onto David’s feet and wiped the trail of saliva from the boy’s cheek with the large handkerchief he kept tucked in the back pocket of his uniform whites. In a lowered voice, he added, “That or completely rattle loose the little bit of brains God saw fit to give ya.”
With a grunt, he began pulling the boy upright. “I’m gettin’ too old for this… Geez, kid, you may not look like much, but you’re heavier than you look, know what I mean?” As he extricated David’s arm from under the chair’s armrest, he glanced out the window. “Nice day out, huh? Sure wish we was in it. Better than worryin’ about what’s on the news, huh?”
He readjusted the pajamas and put David’s hands together in his lap. Then, Karl stood and stretched while he glanced around the small private room. “Why don’tcha draw a picture?” He said the last word in a typical South-Side Pittsburgh accent, pronouncing it ‘pitcher.’ Looking at the various sketches and crayon drawings that adorned the walls of David’s room, he said “Ya got a talent there, David.”
The room contained a bed, a small wooden table with a stool tucked under it, a high chest of drawers, and the green chair. On the walls were dozens of drawings, done in a variety of media–crayon, charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. There was one even done in ink, though they’d had to take the pen away after one of the other nurse’s found David had broken it and smeared his face with its contents.
The drawings showed a degree of detail and sophistication unexpected because they came from a boy who spent most of his days apparently staring at nothing. The subjects varied–a large oak tree on a hillside, two dogs–a golden retriever and a huge Newfoundland–wrestling together in a field of grass, an old-style station wagon of the variety with the fake-wood sides. Most, however, were of animals: Horses, dogs, cats, bears, and so on. Most were drawn on cream-colored construction paper, although some had been done on larger white easel-sheets.
In the bottom drawer of the chest were a dozen sheets of the construction paper, a half-box of charcoal, and a huge box of crayons, two hundred fifty six different colors in all, most of which were worn down to less than half their original length. David didn’t do much, but he did clearly enjoy Drawing Time.
Karl was just about to leave the room, when he heard voices approaching, one of them he recognized as Dr. Sandra Beck, the chief administrator of Greenfield. “I’d be quite happy to give you a complete tour of our facilities,” she was saying in the clipped, precise tones of a schoolteacher, “and of course, you can visit with your nephew for a time. However, I must insist that if he shows any sign of restiveness or distress, we will have to leave him be.”
Smiling a little, Karl knew the reason for the administrator’s mannerisms and speech patterns was because she’d actually been an elementary schoolteacher, first grade, for some twenty years before getting her doctorate and changing careers. He shot a glance at David to make sure the boy was still presentable; Karl knew that in all likelihood, within minutes of leaving, the kid would be slouched down, half-undressed, and drooling again. For now though, David was staying put, giving every appearance of merely staring out the window, hands limp in his lap. The boy blinked only every now and then.
Dr. Beck bustled into the room, a short, sturdy, matronly woman who always wore her long, gray hair up in a complicated hairdo and just the barest touch of makeup. She looked every inch the grandmotherly figure, too, long brown skirts under a floral jacket, plain stockings, and sensible shoes. As she caught sight of the nurse, she brightened visibly. “Oh, hello Karl. I’m glad you’re here.” Two people–a man and a woman–followed her into David’s small room, making it somewhat crowded. Indicating the pair, the administrator continued, “These are Mister and Miz Anderson–David’s aunt and uncle. They’ve asked to see him. This is Karl, one of our senior care nurses. He’s been with us for…what is it? Five years now? And how is David?”
“Six actually, ma’am,” Karl acknowledged and nodded to the couple. “Pleased to meet’cha. As for a visit, shouldn’t be a problem–he’s been in one of his better moods today.”
Mr. and Ms. Anderson looked to be a fairly ordinary couple in their late thirties–with the exception of their attire. The gentleman wore a gray pin-stripe Brooks Brothers suit, a ‘power-blue’ silk tie (knotted perfectly in a modified Windsor), and impeccably shined black wingtip shoes. He was of average height and build, with sandy-brown hair, cut in the latest style–slightly longer on top, styled with hair gel and combed just-so. The eyes behind his gold wire-rim glasses were a vague, watery blue that seemed to skitter here and there. In one hand, he carried an expensive leather briefcase. As for his wife, she also could’ve been almost anybody, but for the obvious quality of her clothes–her gray wool pants-suit obviously tailored, with matching charcoal-colored pumps, and over this a Burberry trenchcoat. Her black handbag bore a Prada label. She wore no visible makeup, and her dark brown hair hung neatly to her shoulders. In contrast to her husband, Ms. Anderson’s eyes were green, sharp, and intense–like a predator.
Both otherwise seemed eminently forgettable, neither attractive nor unattractive, except for the pricey clothes and accessories. Of course, it didn’t surprise Karl very much that David’s relatives would be well-off. As far as nursing homes in the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area went, Greenfield was one of the most expensive.
“I feel I must caution you,” Dr. Beck continued, “that although David here is a very high-functioning autistic, he has severe limitations. In particular, I ask that you not touch or attempt to hug him. Trust me–he would not experience the physical contact as the simple gesture of affection you might intend it to be. For that matter, he may not react well to any attempts at interaction, particularly since you are not familiar to him. So please keep this in mind. It’s not personal or a sign that we or anyone else has been abusing him–it’s just the way he is.”
“I understand,” said Ms. Anderson, in a low, throaty voice. “Has de boy had any other visitors recently?” She spoke in a thick, Russian-Slavic accent, full of aspirated h’s and lightly rolled r’s.
Dr. Beck thought about this for a moment, tapping a painted forefinger nail against her teeth before answering. “No,” she said slowly. “I don’t believe so, but I didn’t take time to check the files when you arrived. Is it important?”
“Yes, please,” said the woman. “However, it can vait until ve finish vith dis visit.”
Karl had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting into laughter. Ms. Anderson’s speech patterns were so extreme as to be a virtual parody. It reminded him of Ensign Chekov’s quasi-Russian accent from the original Star Trek TV series. He put his hands behind his back and kept his eyes down, or on David.
If Dr. Beck felt similarly, she gave no sign of it, professional as she always was, whatever the circumstances. “Certainly,” she said, smiling. “Do you have any other questions? I mean, about David?”
Mr. Anderson had wandered off to inspect David’s artwork, decorating the walls of his room; as yet, he’d still not said a word. Karl found himself wondering if he’d have an accent as preposterous as his wife’s.
So far, David blithely ignored them all.
“Has there been any change in his condition?” asked Ms. Anderson. “Any sign of awareness? Or other improvement?”
Dr. Beck blinked, puzzled. “I’m sorry, I really don’t think you understand the nature of autism,” she replied. “It’s a life-long condition. Permanent. Those with cases as severe as David’s are almost never able to function outside the controlled, predictable environment of an institution such as this one. They crave sameness, order, even something as basic as an unchanging schedule and menu. He will likely spend the rest of his days, if not here, then in a place very much like it. If he’s fortunate.”
“I see,” Ms. Anderson said, frowning.
“Just so you know,” Dr. Beck added quickly, “we have had David evaluated regularly. We’ve also tried him on a number of the more promising new treatments, but I’m afraid he just hasn’t responded to any of them so far.”
Mr. Anderson spoke up then, from over near the head of David’s bed. “Excuse me,” he said, and unlike his wife, he had no discernable accent whatsoever. “Did the boy paint this?” He pointed to the large portrait on the wall just above the headboard.
Done in acrylics on canvas, the framed painting depicted a deer, the head and neck of a large buck set against a darkening twilight sky. Its branching antlers rose high, and the evening star shone among the ivory tines. The animal faced dead-on straight, muzzle down, a hint of moisture showing on its dark nose. The eyes, though black, reflected the purple of the heavens, and seemed to be looking directly at you, no matter where you stood in relation to it. Its detailed brown fur gave the illusion of being stirred by a gentle wind. The painting was quite gorgeous, the work of a master.
“Why yes,” replied Dr. Beck. “Yes, he did. Quite remarkable, isn’t it? As a matter of fact, David drew all the art you see in the room here, plus a few more we have tacked up in the Activity Room. Autistic he may be, but David is not without his talents. We try to encourage him in this. I wasn’t here when that particular painting was done–but you were, weren’t you, Karl?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Karl answered, nodding. Then, directing more of his attention to the odd couple, he explained, “Usually we only let him draw with watercolors, crayons, or pastels, but the Channel 2 news people insisted on giving him real paint for a change. No idea how they found out about David, maybe through somebody who used to work here, I dunno. It was right after that TV movie won all the awards. Y’know–‘Jeffrey’s Story’? They wanted to do a story about some of the different kinds of savant syndromes.”
“‘Savant syndrome’?” repeated Ms. Anderson. “I do not understand. What is this?”
This last came out as ‘Vot eez deese?‘–and Karl had to bite his cheek again.
“It refers to an extraordinary ability or gift that those with…mental challenges will sometimes exhibit,” Dr. Beck jumped in, almost as if sensing Karl’s discomfiture. “It’s a rare thing, and not even limited to the autistic. But they do seem to have these gifts somewhat more often than do the others.”
“What kinds of gifts?” Ms. Anderson asked, quite intent now, more so than seemed warranted, at least in Karl’s opinion. “Things besides drawing well?”
If Dr. Beck took any particular note of the tone, she gave no indication. “Oh, some are calendar counters–that is, give them any date at all, and they can tell you which day of the week it fell on. Others can memorize huge amounts of information at a glance. In my last position, I once met a young girl–completely uncommunicative in every way, not even potty-trained–but she could play piano. Any song Jessica heard a single time, she could repeat perfectly. Bach, Rachmaninoff, Mozart–even the Beatles. You should have heard her rendition of ‘Hey Jude’–it brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. She was more remarkable because girls with autism are usually more profoundly impaired than the boys, and Jessica was no exception.”
“Has the boy shown any ‘gifts’ besides painting?” Ms. Anderson wanted to know. Again, to Karl’s ear, there seemed to be a great deal left unsaid here, a certain avid intensity, as if they expected David to have other abilities.
“No, he hasn’t,” Dr. Beck replied, plainly puzzled. “I think we may be getting off track here. These savant gifts are a wonderful thing, but they don’t begin to make up for the profound neurological difficulties. People focus on what the mentally challenged person can do well, and ignore everything else they cannot do at all. People with autism could be said to live in a very different world from the rest of us. They demand order, because they can’t create it for themselves, inside their own heads. Furthermore, they can only process certain kinds of sensory input–and that often very poorly.”
“So he cannot understand us? Is he aware of us?”
“I’m certain he’s aware of us,” said Dr. Beck, shaking her head. “Whether he can interact with us in any meaningful way is another matter entirely. Karl here could probably get David to follow simple directions, because the boy’s familiar with his voice and his presence. If you spoke to him, the words would likely be perceived as complete gibberish. Random noise, with no more content than the quacking of ducks.” After a beat, she added quickly, “No offense!”
“None taken,” replied Ms. Anderson.
Karl was barely following this conversation himself, because the administrator wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t heard before. Instead, he was remembering the day David had painted his masterpiece, that beautiful deer painting above the boy’s bed.
When he’d guided David toward the Activity Room, Karl had been certain the kid would either withdraw completely or become confused and start thrashing about. In unfamiliar situations, David had done both before. The staff psychologist called these violent episodes ‘acting out’; Karl, coming from far more modest origins, called it ‘throwing a tantrum’ or ‘pitching a fit.’
It amounted to the same thing, whatever you called it. And David could throw quite an impressive tantrum, even if he was small for his age and didn’t get much exercise.
The way the Activity Room looked now, it couldn’t have gotten farther from ‘familiar’ if they’d tried. The large, open room contained at least a half-dozen adult strangers, bright lights, cameras, equipment, cables, and painting materials–every one of them things David had never seen before.
Even the staff psychologist had recommended to the young reporter that she allow David to draw with his own supplies. He further advised they conduct the interview at the time of day David almost always worked on his drawings, after physical therapy in the morning and lasting until lunch, or in the afternoon after David’s nap. But there was no swaying the ambitious young woman with the exquisitely coiffed ash-blonde hair and chiseled cheekbones. She’d insisted the paints and easel would have far more impact than David’s usual media.
Karl led the boy over to the center of all this chaos, using a pinch of sleeve to do the directing. This always seemed to work better and more consistently than touching David’s arm or hand directly. He remembered how the boy looked confused at first, and more than a little frightened.
Then David’s half-focused eyes happened upon the paints piled on the table nearest the easel the TV people had set up for him. Before anyone could react, he rushed over and grabbed at the slender metal tubes. Clutching a double-handful of the paints to his narrow chest, he crooned with wordless delight, “Haaeeeeeeeeeeeahhhh!”
Then, with unnerving efficiency, the boy uncapped nearly all the tubes of paint and began to mix them on the palette near the easel. Although he’d never seen these implements before, he seemed to understand instinctively how to use both the palette and plastic palette knives provided. All the while, the pretty blonde TV news reporter kept trying to ask David questions, but it was as if she didn’t even exist to him.
Karl remained alert, still halfway certain that David would astound them all by eating the paints he’d so carefully mixed. But he didn’t. Instead, he sorted among the half-dozen brushes on the table and picked the largest one. Then he worked it on his palette and set the brush to the canvas. Minutes later, when he set down the first brush, he’d done the background, a broad sweeps of deep purple-blue that looked to Karl like the color at the edge of outer space.
David went through the selection of brushes again, chose a medium grade slant-tip this time, and began to sketch with a dark, loamy tint he’d mixed from brown, red, and black. All the while, the reporter prattled on about “hidden, genius-like abilities,” “natural musicians,” and “calendar counters.” The cameras rolled.
Once, when the reporter got in his way, David leaned to one side and painted around her. His strokes were sure, precise, and incredibly fast.
By time he finished hours later, everyone, including the camera crew, had stopped everything and stood gaping with astonishment at David’s creation. The magnificent, majestic deer held them all spellbound, pinning everyone with its jet black eyes. As Karl stared at the portrait for an unknown amount of time, he felt the sensation of falling endlessly into those dark orbs.
The Buck gazed steadily back, deep into and through him. Somehow, it seemed to know every last thing about him.
In David’s room now, caught by the deer’s eyes once more, Karl felt a little of the same sensation, despite the presence of all these others.
He also realized with a start that he’d missed the last minute of conversation between Dr. Beck and Ms. Anderson. He shook himself. The administrator was saying, “I’m really sorry, I don’t know how I can make this more clear. I’m delighted that you’ve taken an interest in David’s welfare, and I hope you will come back for return visits. Until you arrived, we had no idea he even had any living relatives. The Burke Family Trust has been paying for David’s care since the day he was admitted, but we’ve only been in contact with the trustee in charge of financial matters, Mr. Logan.”
“Then I fail to see problem,” Ms. Anderson said angrily, the emotion, if anything, making her accent thicker and more incomprehensible. “We are family. Why can we not take the boy with us now?”
Uh oh, Karl thought to himself. I smell trouble…
“First of all, I truly don’t think you understand what you are proposing,” Dr. Beck explained, her lips a thin line, much of her usual natural ebullience long gone. Karl knew full well she got like this any time she felt the health and well-being of one of her charges, young or old, was at risk. “You have as much as admitted you know nothing about caring for an autistic child. David has special needs–he’s having them met here, and quite well, I might add. Greenfield really does represent the best long-term care money can buy.”
“We can hire specialists, if that is what is needed,” argued Ms. Anderson, her husband having moved closer to David, almost possessively.
Karl realized something just then. The Andersons didn’t really give the impression of being a married couple at all. It was more like…what? An instant later he had it: Boss and underling. Furthermore, married or not, there was no doubt at all which of these two was in charge.
He made up his mind then to intervene, if what he thought might happen actually did. No, he wouldn’t put it past them at all to try to snatch the kid and make a run for it. Karl managed to catch Dr. Beck’s eye. He pointed at his own chest, and then down at the carpeted floor, and looked the question at her. The unspoken words, You want me to stay here, right?
Dr. Beck understood, thankfully, and gave him a small, almost imperceptible nod. She said, “I am trying to be reasonable here. And further, to explain why it’s not in David’s best interest to put him through such an upheaval, unprepared. I would add that I have only your word that you are who you say you are–”
Ms. Anderson interrupted, saying, “We have papers. Documents. Hospital and vaccination records. Copy of the boy’s birth certificate.” She nodded towards her husband, who made as if to open his leather briefcase, but Dr. Beck stopped him with an imperious gesture.
“Unless one of those papers is a notarized court order giving you legal custody, don’t bother,” she said firmly. “You are not taking David today, and that is final.”
“Not even if the trust organization has authorized this?”
“Not even then,” replied Dr. Beck. “I know David’s case is somewhat unusual, but when he was admitted to our care the courts appointed us as his legal guardian. In fact, there is only one person with the authority to make final determinations regarding his care–and that happens to be me, as chief administrator of Greenfield. Were you to take him from here, he’d still be my legal ward until a court says otherwise or I’m replaced. Now I have no idea why his parents went to all the trouble of setting up a trust fund for him, yet left it up to the courts to select a guardian, but that’s neither here nor there.”
“So you are saying if we get this court order, you will release the boy to us?” Ms. Anderson pressed.
Dr. Beck’s hands were clenched in fists at her sides; Karl had never seen her this angry before. “Cleary you have not been listening to me,” she said, her words becoming increasingly clipped and precise, like stones dropped from a great height, one by one. “Don’t you care at all for David’s well-being?! You cannot simply bundle him up in a car, drop him into a completely unfamiliar environment and expect everything to be hunky-dory. Are you prepared for violent outbursts? Hours of endless screaming? Do you have breakables? Do you even know what David likes to eat? Have you laid in a supply of diapers? Because I can assure you, it’s not at all uncommon for an autistic child to regress when they’re faced with intolerable changes to their routines and environment.”
As if in response to these very issues, David began finally to react to the ruckus going on around him. Ducking his head, he slowly slumped in his chair like a balloon deflating. From behind closed lips he made a noise–a low, wordless whine that started off low but threatened to grow in volume.
Most other times, Karl would’ve taken this as a typical warning sign of an impending tantrum. In this instance, however, he also saw it as an opportunity. “Uh, Dr. Beck?” he said into the first available pause in the two women’s argument. “I know it’s not my place to say what happens in the end, but all this–well, all this is getting to the kid. You know how sensitive he is to people expressing strong emotions around him–he handles angry people least well of all.”
“You’re right, Karl,” Dr. Beck sighed, consciously unclenching her hands and her jaw. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me.” Turning her attention back towards the strange, wealthy Andersons, she said, “We can discuss this further in my office, if you like, but I must insist that we leave David alone now. If you wish simply to visit, you can come again next week.”
“That won’t be necessary, we have seen all we need to see at this time,” Ms. Anderson replied, obviously still fuming, and David’s whine stepped up a notch in volume and pitch. “We will be back when we have secured the required papers.”
Karl knew that if they delayed much longer, that whine would soon become a piercing shriek. So did Dr. Beck. Herding the visitors toward the door, the administrator said, “If I might ask a favor, could we return to my office for a few minutes anyway? I should like copies of those vaccination and treatment records–our own files aren’t complete in that regard. If you’ll start ahead of me, I need to speak with Karl here for just a moment.”
As soon as Mr. and Ms. Anderson left the room, David stopped his whine in mid-note. A small trail of spittle leaked from the corner his mouth though, and he slumped further down in the chair.
When Dr. Beck waved Karl over, he stepped close and asked quietly, “We don’t really need those records, do we, ma’am?”
“No,” the administrator acknowledged. “But I do want a look at what they do have, and make copies if they’ll let me. I want to see what we’re up against.”
Karl saw the worry plain on Dr. Beck’s grandmotherly face. “What is it, really?” he asked.
“I don’t trust those two, not as far as I could throw the both of them,” she admitted, frowning. “I’ve seen their type before–they never have any doubt about getting their way eventually. Most times, they do. What I don’t understand is why they want physical custody of a boy whose needs they can’t possibly understand. Or meet.”
“Could be the trust fund?” Karl suggested.
“You could be right,” Dr. Beck replied thoughtfully, shaking her head. “On the other hand, if that’s all they wanted, why take physical custody when legal guardianship would suffice? No, something about this stinks to high heaven, something they’re not telling us. Whatever the case, it’s imperative we do what we can to protect David. I will not stand by quietly while they attempt the moral equivalent of locking him in the attic and throwing away the key–assuming that isn’t their actual objective. The important thing though is I want you to inform the rest of the staff that Mr. and Ms. Anderson are not to be allowed unsupervised visits with David. At all times, I want at least two staff members present. Is that clear?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Karl, nodding. “You really believe they might run off with him?”
“Them? I wouldn’t put it past them. Ms. Anderson claimed to be the boy’s aunt–his mother’s sister. If there’s the least family resemblance there, I don’t see it.”
“Gotcha. Anything else, ma’am?”
“Just keep an eye on David today, make sure this business hasn’t upset him too much, all right?” Dr. Beck clapped her hands together lightly. “Now I really must get back to our…’guests.’ Do let me know if there are any problems.”
With that, Dr. Beck hurried away, the low heels of her sensible shoes clacking on the tile floor in the long hallway.
When she was gone, Karl waited a minute to be sure that David would remain still and calm. The boy seemed completely unaware and oblivious again. Satisfied, Karl pulled the large handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the drool from the corner of David’s mouth. When this seemed not to bother the boy, he pulled him upright, arranging the chair so he could see outside the window more clearly. It looked like there were some birds goofing around out on the lawn out there, which he hoped would be entertaining–particularly after what had just happened.
Watching David, such a frail, pale boy, Karl felt a curious surge of affection and sympathy for the him. Impulsively and against his better judgment, he took a risk and ruffled David’s tangled brown hair, saying, “Catch you later, kid. Be good.”
As soon as the nurse was gone and the room quiet once more, David began to squirm to the right and slump down. The slippers came off and, with a twisting motion, he pushed his bare feet against the carpeted floor, slowly maneuvering the chair back to an angle with the window. He slid his legs up onto the left armrest. In minutes, he was in exactly the same position as he had been before. One arm lay over the back of the chair, the other between the arm and seat, and his head lolled and knocked against the wall.
The blue jays moved closer, playing dominance games on the green lawn. They squawked and flapped at one another among the dappled patterns of sun and shade thrown by the large maple tree outside the window. The light and dark green flickered and jumped like flames as breezes ruffled the maple’s leaves.
To David’s deliberately unfocused eyes though, the green flames became dancing bubbles of light. The note he hummed relentlessly made the bones of his jaw and forehead vibrate, and each time he knocked his head against the concrete wall, the bubbles would scatter and coalesce. Almost, he could make out the pattern.
Somehow, it was important to see the pattern.
No, not just important, but imperative. That was a word he’d heard just recently and for some reason, it had stuck with him. On an intuitive level, he understood that it meant “dreadfully important and essential.”
To see and comprehend the pattern was imperative.
The jays added blue and black to the dancing greens. David half-closed his eyes and the bubbles became points, dimmer but more distinct. First, the motes would all shift one way and back, as if carried on ocean waves, riding up and down. Then there might be a twirling, round and round, groups of points all orbiting unseen centers. Once in a great while, the tiny lights would swirl around in a gyre, each mote circling in still smaller spirals, the whole like wheels within wheels, like Ezekiel’s chariot of fire. In these moments, David would hum ever louder and bang his head with greater force against the wall.
In the middle of the gyre of lights, he glimpsed things in flashes: A huge explosion that went on forever, burning everything. An open door, standing alone in the middle of a snowy field. A man in a white robe, with gray-green eyes, graying brown hair and beard, and a sad, careworn face.
A frightened woman, dressed in jeans and a blue sweater, walking down a city street. She carried a heavy bag over one shoulder. This particular vision lasted longer than the others, so he tried to wave to her, but before he could see if she reacted both she and the street were gone.
Then he saw the door again, a large oaken thing, standing in a polished marble archway. On the door was carved a shape that looked something like the painting he’d made–a deer, only different. On one side of the door was a shallow, snowy valley with a dark, still pool in the middle; on the other side, nothing at all. A void of utter black emptiness.
The last thing he saw was his own hand and a large, silvery key laying across his palm. Motes of light and cobalt sparks danced around the key’s length. The key’s handle was ring of entangled vines and flowers, but the teeth at the other end of the shaft shifted constantly, and impossibly so for anything of this world.
The motes had grown dim by now. Eventually, a cloud bank covered the sun and the points of light went out. The jays had long since settled their territorial dispute, and each had eaten its fill from the feeder in turn and left.
David stopped humming and lay his head against the jutting corner of the wall. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. Unnoticed, a thin dark rivulet gathered and trickled down from a lacerated wound on the side of his head, towards the back.
Red drops trembled at the uneven ends of his tousled hair and fell to the carpeted floor below.
(end of excerpt…)
© Rebecca Morn, all rights reserved. The entirety of this novel is available for publication.
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