What I intend to write here is a bunch of short stories to drag me back into creative writing. My output at university suffered, to put it mildly, and I don't want this to happen again. I had also just read a compilation of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane shorts, and reckoned that, if this was one of the fathers of modern fantasy, then surely I could at least match him. I've never tried to write a short story before, but I'll give it a go here. It sounds like just a thing for a writer who has trouble getting his long stories beyond the opening scenes. Why choose the Grand Inquisitor Bequelle Torbane? Well, I've been running some games of Dark Heresy, and can't get witch hunting out of my head; on the other hand, I don't want to write fan fiction. So that's that. I hope that I can regain my literary momentum, and then ultimately resume more important writing projects. Such as Khaos and Aristokrator, they were going pretty well, and the Rakarskia stories, and my massive Roman epic on , and…
These aren't going to be especially coherent, and the world isn't going to be especially well defined, so I'm going to try something new. If any of my readers here want me to take my characters somewhere, then I will do so. I'm quite open to more or less defining the world as I go along-within reason. (I'm not going to suddenly give anything new powers just so as to create a deus ex machina.)
So, without further ado… over to my characters. Please read and review. Any comments will be appreciated, especially useful critiques. As I write, I realise that I've probably taken slightly more than is wise from Warhammer 40,000 (as usual), and A Song of Ice and Fire. Please forgive me.
(Note: this story will be in two instalments. I decided to publish whatever I had written by the end of today to get myself flowing, and to seek out improvements, so here it is.)
The Red Fair, Par I
I had in my possession, before my recent, bloody years, three books. An abnormally large number, perhaps, for a vagrant with half his mind torn out, and a reason for good cheer about the world, except that one and a half of them were quite useless.
My first was useful to my profession: a cheaply printed chapbook of folk songs. I had picked this up off a pedlar, who had hungrily accepted my few pennies and ran for the coaching inn just before the heavens opened. I had to earn my keep there by my own effort, singing lustily along to words which, slowly, returned to my mind. At some points, I found my voice conducting little tricks, little pauses between the music, whistling or humming out contours of a statue which I had quite forgotten, adding flourishes here and dashes there. I was applauded, given the remains of the night's joint, a place of honour on the rush mats, and went to sleep warm, but with little precise idea as to how I'd done it.
I was using the first quite actively, when I decided to relieve myself of the second. This was at Caedmon's Fair, where gold was as water, the Red King prospered, and an Inquisitor prowled.
I had just finished a performance, when I noticed that among the audience were a number of monks. There was nothing surprising about this, in particular. People of all sorts were flocking over to see us, from Guardsmen to children (who hawked and bargained as hard as any of the gowned, grey bearded merchants.) I had been hired out, along with a brace of flutists, to accompany The Chained Ursus in his latest act. The dancing bear was huge, black furred, and rotten toothed. Its dancing partner, the Dazzling Edith, wore her blonde ponytail with sullen contempt for us all down to the last reluctant bobbing of her head, and shook her cashbox at the end with a thunderous rattle, before ripping the rattles from her stockings and stalking off. But the musical accompaniment more than made up for this with a rousing rendition of The Bear and the Maiden Fair, which was only enhanced as a troupe of jugglers and a fire eater decided to invade the stage, brandishing their torches menacingly. The audience only laughed harder, and the whole thing ended with a final clap of thunder as a Revontine alchemist unleashed his fireworks. The bear himself took it quite well, all things considered.
The monks clapped politely, and departed, wondering through the maze of tents and stalls. I soon accepted my share of the payment (two solidii, three pence and one silver torc, later lost gambling), gathered my belongings, and followed the line of bald heads and dark robes towards what I assumed to be the monastery's stall. For a monastery, I reasoned to myself, would be as fine a place as any for the sale of manuscripts. And I had just the thing they would need. Sure enough, I pushed past a stall of pastries, flinched away from a leper colony's representative (their signs depicting the decay of the sinful would be enough to derive charity from any man; the only trouble was the lepers themselves driving away potential givers with their miasma), slipped through the mud, and found myself standing before their stall.
Nothing unusual. As many bowls and barrels of wine for sale, I fancy, as there were relics (these were guarded by a ferociously scarred monk who looked like the old soldier he probably was, cut about everywhere save the ears; these, I remember, had something pointed about them, a half elf perhaps?), and, most importantly, books. Books bound in leather, scrolls in buckets (Revontine ones, I fancy, showing the natural philosophies), books propped open to display the illumination, even a display of the Count Ottophilius' writings on the outerdark. I stood for a moment, looking at one of the illuminations (the Blessed Martyr Heloise's rise to glory; the flames around the heretics were shown in exquisite detail, the Lord of the manor diminished whilst Heloise herself towered to the top of the pyre) and cleared my throat, preparing to address the monks. There were, as I recall, four of them.
'Damned lepers,' one was saying.
'On earth, yes,' said the scarred one mildly. 'When they ascend, of course, we'll be alongside them at Their side, and you'll regret every word you say, and this man here looks like he wants business.'
'Really?' said a third, squinting through wooden rimmed spectacles. 'Oh, by the Master he is. A minority, when the decayed ones are scaring off our good customers, denying the faith its charity…' He picked his way over towards me with the help of a stick. His dark red robe, although the hem was sadly stained with mud, was otherwise clean, and the golden ring of the Tolorite Faith was stitched proudly into the chest. 'And what can the humble monastery of Caedon do for you?'
'Hire him as a choirboy,' the scarred monk said, 'and make way! In the name of all that is holy, make way!' I glanced to the side; a guardsman had arrived, in full mail and with coin pouch in hand. I skipped lightly to the side and let him past. 'If he wasn't so old,' the scarred monk went on, 'and what the humble monastery of…'
'I can see your age perfectly well, no matter what Brother Edgar says,' the man with the glasses said, steepling his fingers on his walking stick. 'I am as the Blessed Cuthbert-'
'The blind man who could see, but in between times mislaid his accounting ledgers, revered Abbot?' said Brother Edgar.
'The latter part is part of your own unique interpretation of the Tolorite Faith, Brother, on which I cannot comment. You have a demon's wit.' But the Abbot smiled all the same. 'You were the singer? My Brothers have said much of you, and a bear, and a song which should doubtless never have reached our innocent ears for its lewdity.'
'The Gods are good,' said Brother Edgar happily, 'and what exactly do you wish to purchase?'
'They have their reasons, no doubt.' The Abbot turned back to me. 'But we are forgetting ourselves, for the monastery needs the charity of others so dearly.' The pottery for sale was as fine as any I had ever seen in any great city. The monks clearly had interests on their minds other than faith alone. All men must eat, and who am I to blame them? 'Do you wish to make a purchase? We have here, for instance, the finger bones of the Blessed Habelard.' He tapped a reliquary. 'Brother Alfred has also made some wooden toys depicting his purging a demon from a well, if you-or, perhaps, a child-would be interested…' He whipped out a little wooden tube, and pressed something on the side. A black raven's head shot out of the top, the painted wooden expression of intense agony.
I laughed with delight, but the price was beyond my means. 'I would be delighted, but I lack the funds.' I had, in any case, read his scripture, and could recall no demon being purged from a well. On the other hand, I had only read the first part. The five to go looked extremely ambitious, unreadable, but pious. Just the thing for a mind doubting in faith to secure on to.
'A terrible shame, terrible.'
'I wish, instead, to sell,' I continued, and produced from one of the sleeves of my robe the second book. The abbot leaned closer, and in addition to his spectacles pulled out a magnifying lens. Very expensive, I thought, must be Revontine optics. He would pay well.
The book, as I slammed it down onto the table, was bound in black leather, and had on its cover a silver skull. Both reflected our faces as we bent over it, glaring up at us. 'No matter what it's been through,' I began, 'it remains completely clean!'
The abbot gave me an appraising look, his eyes huge. 'You are a… wondering singer?'
'I am, yes.'
'Doubtless, then, it has been through much.'
'It has been.' But, frustratingly, I couldn't precisely tell him. My acquisition of the book was another gap in my memory. I could remember in exact detail, though, my travels on the road after my mind was Taken, and would have told him if I thought it appropriate of every last splashing, rains-swollen ford or sputtering campfire.
'I… see. That, alone, will make it of interest in our scriptorium. But what is in its pages?' The abbot plucked at the bindings. I gently lifted his hands away, and unclasped them with the distinctive flick that they required. I had taken two nights of fumbling to even get that far.
'Well… this is the strangest part, really,' I muttered.
'It seems quite empty.' The pages looked blankly at us. I flicked through them, leaf after leaf, as if I expected something else; but again, nothing in there. 'Finest quality, if I can see them rightly, and Brother Barnabas would be able to-he's Master of the Scriptorium-but he is sadly ill. With the runs, I fear. It took a great deal to convince him to sell any of our manuscripts at all without his guidance!'
'Empty?' Brother Edgar snorted again. 'Oh, no! There's-'
'Well, there is a blood stain a fair way in,' I said. It was always 'a fair way in'. I had never been able to discern quite where, but it always seemed 'a fair way in'. 'But no writing, no.'
The Abbot laughed. 'The paper… well, that resolves something. The books can, then, be said to be worth exactly the paper they are printed on, and as it is best quality-Batvian, perhaps -then we can put it to good use as a resource. Except… tell me, singer-'
'Skorecky. Karol Skorecky.'
'A Lettuan name, yes? Your accent is superb, by the way, quite superb. You have travelled far. Our good King has been calling for many such people. But, tell me, Master Skorecky… if the book cannot be damaged, can we extract the pages easily for our own use-let us say, by cutting them out?'
A sharp man, this. 'I… well, I don't believe we can, no.'
'Our scriptorium shall find a way. Brother Barnabas is an ingenious scholar, truly blessed by the Divine Monk. He shall find a way. But in the mean time, you must understand that this has a most… deleterious effect on the price.' Purged like a demon from a well. 'We can muster two solidii and eight pence.'
I haggled desperately for a while, but the Abbot had me firmly. Less than half of what I had hoped. But hope was never high for me in those days. So I relented, surrendered the book, and turned to leave. Perhaps there was some juggler, somewhere, who wanted…
At this point, I realised it had started raining. The books were already being hassled undercover, with the monks trying to balance pots to catch the drops through their richly endowed awning. The guardsman nodded thanks for a large bundle from Brother Edgar, and turned to leave. Noticing me, he laughed. 'A good gleeman you are, yes? Yes! With the bear!' I recognised him from the audience. The man had hopped from foot to foot, and seemed the only one to focus on the Dazzling Edith with anything above scorn or ironic amusement. 'I'M A BEAR, A BEAR! A BEAR, I DECLARE, O MAIDEN FAIR WITH THE GOLDEN HAIR!' He roared it out crudely, swaggered up to me, and clapped one hand on my shoulder. His beard was long and shaggy, pouring brown below his helmet's noseguard, matted with grease. It stank so hard as to almost drown out the mead on his breath. 'AND I HAVE YOU NOW, EH?'
'Hardly golden haired,' I said, laughing more shrilly than I had hoped, and trying to wriggle out of the obvious drunkard's grasp. 'Greying now, you see, and-'
'I have friends who'd love to see who I caught. What d'you say, eh? I'VE CAUGHT THE MAIDEN FAIR!' The oafish guardsman cheered loudly. 'AUT!' The ancient Aelfodden battlecry, and the passersby joined in. It was getting late in the day, a time for revelry conducted under roofs or, at least, under canvas. (It was at this point, I think, that an owl hooted; evidently it was later than we thought. At the time, I thought nothing of it.) Who were they to intervene when a guardsman had taken someone to assist this with his comrades? Especially when he stood seven feet tall and bore the King's insignia and a great axe across his back.
'Very well.' I laughed nervously, again. 'Let us do what we can.' Immediately, I wished I hadn't said that. Every Lettuan had heard rumours about what the Aelfodden did with the hafts of their axes to foreigners, and their arses were said never to recover. Damn, how was I to get out of this?
The guardsman laughed, and started hustling me along.
A trade fair is a great, tented city, set up every so often by a handy road or river route with the express intent of having merchants meet from across the world, pay the King's taxes, drink, laugh, exchange deals and wares, and in absolutely no circumstances cheat, lie, blackmail, extort, profiteer, racketeer, smuggle, or otherwise conduct illegality, especially not late in the day as night begins to come. Caedmon's Fair was the largest in all the Kingdom of Aelfodden, a gods forsaken and misty patch of land which happened to be ruled by a King who wanted to bring the world's riches into his country. You can therefore how easy it is for someone to get lost within it, especially a newcomer. I was half dragged around corner after corner, robed merchant after pitiful beggar after be-motleyed entertainer. It was all I could do to recall a vague route. I pride myself on my memory, so this was most disconcerting.
'Tell me,' I said after a time, 'does the King pay you… well?'
'The King?' The guardsman blinked.
'Well… you wear his insignia, and presumably look to keep the peace.' And collect the King's taxes. 'Does the Red King…' the guardsman's eyes flickered. Best not to use the nickname. 'Does His Majesty, King Caelferic Redbeard, pay you well?'
'When I served him,' he replied, 'yes.'
'You see, I have money too-I earned it just now, you saw, I can probably give you a fair bit to let me-I'm sorry?'
'When I served him we were given plenty.' The insistent momentum began again, jolting roughly at my shoulder, my neck. 'Enough to buy the world's milk and honey!'
'But who do you serve… now?' A free lancer? Such a man could, perhaps, be paid off. But what would a mercenary want with a singer? What would the King's sheriffs want with a singer?
'Oh, this and that… that girl Edith! Wow, she'd serve me just well...' The guardsman, bundle now shouldered, stroked his beard appreciatively. 'But now, it is another…'
I remembered the caterwauling Edith had put up during our single group rehearsal, and doubted this very much. 'Who?' I pulled up the hood of my robe as the pressure of his arm finally loosened on my shoulders. My hair was soaking, but we had stopped outside a tent. A blacksmith's tent, by the look of it; firelight flickering from within, an anvil sign raised outside. The flap had been closed, evidently due to the rain, but a clinking still continued of hammer against metal. Good, warm light, warm people, warm industry.
Or cold chains, perhaps…
'My master awaits,' the Guardsman said, making a courtly gesture towards the tent.
'A guard, working for a smith? Security must be tight in these fairs!'
'A smith of sorts, yes. You don't know our customs, being a Lettuan, so what I just did with my hand says 'come in now, if you would be so kind'.' The guardsman made it again. 'So-come in now, if you would be so kind.'
And, seeing no choice, I took a step into the tent. Into the light of the fire.
'So,' a high, whispering voice said, 'Armsman, what have you brought me?'
The tent was small, and the smoke of the fire hung thick despite the hole in the roof. I almost choked, gulped, and took in my surroundings. There was very little to take in. A bedroll, a chest of ebony, a bundle in the corner. Very little to distract me from the figure in the centre of the tent.
It was a tall woman, in black shirt and breeches, whose face might have been carved from ivory. Lit by the flickering fire from underneath, it assumed an almost demonic aspect, all red planes and shadows. It once, many years ago, might have been beautiful, but one high cheekbone was oddly crumpled, with a heavy scar around it. But what she was holding caught my attention first.
In front of her was a wooden frame, some sort of metal plate in the centre, and it was this that had generated the clinking. In her right hand she held a massively heavy looking sword with a fencer's grace, evidently having just been practicing. In her left hand, a golden eye, looking out at me. Perhaps it was just a trick of the smoke and rain, but I could have sworn that it had blinked.
No, likely not a trick. The Inquisition had eyes everywhere.
'Now,' I said, spreading my hands wide, 'I can explain everything.'
'Oh?' The Inquisitor-for that was what I guessed her to be-raised an eyebrow. 'You can, can you?'
'Well-ahem-yes.' I cleared my throat, and cast my mind back into what knowledge I had of canon law. I had done so several times already in the past few weeks, just in case this should happen. Fortunately, the knowledge remained there, for now. I was oddly conscious that knowledge had a habit of coming and going, like the ocean tide. 'You see-'
'Your name, please.'
'Karol Skorecky, of the Senate and People's Repulic of Lettua.' I spat the words out, staccato. I remembered repeating them to myself, over and over again, as my mind was Taken, as the talons of magic and fear worked into my mind. 'Born in the Consulship of Jozef Podolski and Jan Gridozi, of the Voting Clan… the Voting Clan…'as on that night, I forgot it. It wasn't even on the tip of my tongue and the records of Lettuan population were not to be found in the Kingdom of Aelfodden. I was acutely conscious of just how far I was from home. 'I cannot recall.'
'Your age?' Another eyebrow raised, and the whispering voice began again. 'The Consulship of Podolski and Gridozi was…'
I brushed at my balding head, save for the pair of forlorn wisps above my ears, both of these bleach-white. 'It may be of interest to you that I am twenty years old.'
'They bear their years poorly in Lettua!' the guardsman-Ethelred, she had called him- laughed. 'Just like their…' A glance from The Inquisitor made his voice trail off.
The Inquisition. The steel fist and all seeing eye of the Tolorite Faith. Sworn to defend the world from foes Beyond, and foes Within. The demon, the vampire, the undead, the spirit, the ghoul, the ghost, the heretic, and only the gods knew what else. The heretic, of course, was what troubled me most. I had heard that it was used unnervingly broadly.
'None, it seems, is forthcoming.' I realised then exactly how tall the Inquisitor was-a head above me, perhaps, like a black cloud as she pulled on her dark cape. 'Well, then…'
'No! Now, you see, my songs. Yes. Well, ah, I can see why you may have dragged me over here. Arrested me, as it were. Yes. Sprites and trickster spirits and suchlike do turn up-with an alarming regularity.'
'It's true. The Black Bear was Taken.' Ethelred sucked through his mead rotted teeth.
'Yes, just like that! But, you see- these were perfectly legitimate, as per Proclamation VIII of the Fourth Tolorite Council, in the Consulship of Huss and Deroda, or 1498 in the Common Calendar, that such things are entirely legal in areas of Faith Classifications II to IV, I being the Heavenly Fields themselves and V and above being reckoned as forms of paganism entirely hostile to the Tolorite faith. The Kingdom of Aelfodden has recently, in the third year of the Reign of King Caelferic Redbeard, entered the Fourth Class. I am therefore entirely within my rights to sing of such creatures, as they are, I quote, 'the harmless traditions of peasants and smallfolk, entirely justifiable hangovers of the Old Faiths,' ah, you see, rather than 'maelific utterances, attempting to summon creatures From Beyond'. So, therefore, I am entirely capable of, ah…' The Inquisitor was looking very hard at me, so my voice faltered, flickered, and died.
'You can recite canon law to me verbatim and yet cannot even remember the clan of your birth?' she said, and there was a note of curiosity in her voice this time.
'Perhaps. I could only get about half the gibberish he was talking about.' I didn't dare turn to see what Ethelred was doing, but I could hear something clinking. 'Still, about my pay for this…'
'I was, I believe, Taken.' My voice was very small.
'Intriguing. And, in any case, your memory has this time served you nought. Skorecky, I have not brought you here to discuss your singing-not yet, at least. No, my first question, is as to how you came by that book?' The Inquisitor was walking backwards towards the chest, bent down (still facing me, sword in hand), and unlocking it.
'Book?' I blinked.
Scrape, went the lock of the chest. Scrape…
'The book,' Ethelred said, 'I saw you selling to those monks.'
'How did you?' I looked round, stunned; he had told the Inquisitor nothing!
Ethelred was holding above his head a wax tablet, covered in scribblings: a summary of events. 'Almost got you there,' he said, amused. 'I ain't subtle, but I try. Fear ensures loyalty, and suspected mind reading...'
'Causes fear. Admirable theatrics, Armsman, but I fear counter productive.' Scrape…
At this point, I believe the owl hooted again.
'The book, Skorecky.' The sword point did not waver.
'The black one? With the skull?'
'The very same.' The Inquisitor snapped her fingers.
'You want notes in my bloody handwriting?' Ethelred sighed. 'I haven't been paid for this, it was tough enough with the stall. I hates reading, I does.'
She sighed. 'Very well. Hold him, Ethelred. You shall receive your pay in due course. As do we all under the eyes of the Gods.' She took a stylus and tablet herself from the chest. 'The book. How did you procure it?'
Once again, her eyes bored into mine. 'I… woke up with it.'
'A failure to produce convincing answers, Skorecky, renders you in my eyes a heretic. I repeat. How did you procure it?' And those eyes, by the gods, were boring into mine like a couched lance.
'I awoke with it!' Ethelred's strong arms suddenly wrapped around me, holding me still and crushing my wind out in the process. 'I tell you, my mind was taken, and I awoke with it in my pack.'
'You awoke with it, then, after you were taken.'
'I did, yes.' The stylus clattered.
'What did you recall of your mind, your soul, being Taken?'
I remember mercifully little, but told all. A village, a rainy night. Firelight at the inn. My horse, a good, rich horse, matching my good, rich clothes, and the good rich meal; that had occupied my mind in the long nights on the road. A wonderful pottage, potatoes from elven lands, the works. The temple bell jangling loud, harsh. The rush to arms. A spear being thrust into my hands, arms drill. 'We'll beat 'em and beat 'em again and again, Hearts of iron be our souls…' someone singing, I cursing myself that it wasn't me, they had the notes wrong, all wrong, so terribly out of key. Shouting this as we faced… something, out there. Green skin? Humanoid, definitely, but as to what…
I had no notion. I have little today.
Blood, red on the dark mud streets, the torches flickering. The rattle of an improvised shield wall, closing. Struggle. Then awakening, a priest standing over me, red robes spattered with something redder.
Another man had red robes, I recalled, and that was the choirmaster of the Lettuan Pantheon, and I was about to tell all of that when the Inquisitor ordered me to stop.
'That shall do.' She had worked through several tablets, I noticed. 'What occurred, when your soul was Taken?'
It had taken my youth. It had taken my mind, many memories. My wealth had gone, somewhere. What else? I had no idea. That was the worst thing about it. Or what I had done, whilst it had taken my soul. Did I want to know? I had no notion. This, I told her.
'How did your soul return?'
I had no idea, and told her so.
'What is your name?'
'Karol Skorecky, of the Senate and People's Repulic of Lettua. Born in the Consulship of Jozef Podolski and Jan Gridozi.'
'How did your soul return?'
I still had no idea.
'And what have done since your soul was returned to you?'
Travelled the roads. Sang for food. My mission, as far as I saw, was still being conducted; the main problem being that I had no idea where I was, on a map. I had been asked to teach the King Redbeard's choirs how to sing in the manner practiced across all the purest Tolorite Kingdoms. He was a moderniser. A reformer. A centraliser. So off I was sent, to bring the voices of the Gods to bless his efforts. And there I was still headed, but my letter of introduction, my ring with the seal of the Theocrat, were both lost. So I had to get there, somehow, and work out the exact route. Naturally, I had no map. Or it had gone. And I was far from anyone who knew exactly where the Kingdom's capital was, or even what it was called. Save, that is, at the trade fair. So there I had gone. And another thing. I had, of course, tried to read the book. Purely out of curiosity, of course.
'You are quite certain, then, that you have answered truthfully?' The Inquisitor reached into the case, and withdrew something. In the guttering firelight, I couldn't quite tell what.
I had found a cheap lodging room, and scrabbled at that damn book for two days straight, trying everything from burning the clasps open to my teeth, my nails, my dagger, my spittle, anything that could open it, or even seemed vaguely sensible. I had thrown it about, causing a racket like a demon on drink, had torn at it madly, had caressed it while I slept. 'Entirely,' I said.
The something was long, metallic, sharp, cantilevered. I had no idea what it did exactly, but my soft flesh was involved. 'I disbelieve you,' the Inquisitor said.
I remained silent.
'There is, you see, a tic at the corner of your mouth. A little tic. See! There it is again. None can hide from the eyes of the Gods. No sin can withstand their gaze. All is revealed, and judgement shall be passed.' Her feverish eyes flicked at my lips, then to my face again. I was sure that whatever eye she had been holding remained fixed on me. 'A tic.'
I racked my memory. No, I could not remember any such tic-but what had that demon done?
'Clear as day, so it is,' Ethelred said from behind me. 'Clear as day.'
How could he know? He was a servant of the Inquisition! He must know!
My mouth twitched.
'Right. Alright, then, so you know.'
The Inquisitor flourished the metal object in her hand with a well practiced motion, and a series of blades sliced out of the end. 'Do tell,' she whispered. 'Confess! And rejoice, for you shall be pure!'
I told her, this time, the stuttering truth.
'Well,' said Edgar as she motioned him to release my arms. 'That's that then. Now, it's getting dark, and my shift is ending, so if you would-'
And the owl hooted.
The Inquisitor, who had until then been laying aside her torture instrument, whatever it was, carefully into the box, immediately dropped it and dived for the case. 'Armsman!' she hissed. 'Armsman!'
'Strange owls they have in these parts,' I said mildly. 'I heard that one a few hours ago, with Ethelred.'
'All the worse.'
Ethelred rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. 'Orders?' he said.
'I suppose,' I said, 'that I cannot leave?'
'You are quite correct. The Divine Monk has granted you great perceptiveness. Quiet!' The Inquisitor had grabbed a lighter sword than the one I had seen her using at practice; it glinted in the guttering firelight with a strange, silvery look. In her other hand, she had a short fire-lance, a lit taper ready on a spring at her sleeve.
'Oh,' I said to myself, 'well…'
I should probably have bolted the tent just then, and damned the consequences. I was about to, legs poised, calculating distances. But Ethelred had his dagger drawn, stood right in my path, and was opening the bundle he had purchased from the month. 'Just throw, yes?'
The Inquisitor nodded. 'Just throw. I believe our payment covered fighting.'
Ethelred nodded. He was rocking on the balls of his feet, eyes wide with glee. 'It shall be done,' he whispered.
The owl hooted again. The pair of them flinched. It was coming from right outside the door.
'A strange owl it is, the hoots in daylight. One that means ill. Go forth, Armsman. Go forth with the Gods.' The Inquisitor had him covered with the fire lance, and gestured me back.
Ethelred raised the dagger in one hand, and the bundle fell away; a glass vial of some clear liquid remained. He unscrewed the top, and stepped forward, slowly, slowly…
The Inquisitor was muttering something. I wracked my brains for scripture.
'Cast the demon into the outerdark, for it is a beast of nothing, and shall fall into nothing.' (she was saying), 'Purge the demon with your fury, for it is a beast of wrath. Oust it with your…' she grimaced. 'With your…'
'Oust the demon with your righteous fire, for theirs' is of the flames of ruin,' I finished for her. I had read some of the works of the Blessed Habelard. Evidently, she could not recall them. A strange Inquisitor, this.
Master watch over us, Marshal give us strength, Monk give us wisdom, Maiden give us our sons, Mother give us our hope, and may the sixth never return. Praise be to the five!
And to whatever the Armsman was doing, let it be quick.
The tent flap went back.
'Hah!' I heard a cry, a hoot, and glass shattering. The Inquisitor raised her sword, and burst forth-
'The fuck?' I heard a voice. 'What the fu-'
This didn't sound like what I expected. No snarls, roars, growls. So I felt for my dagger, drew it, and tentatively stepped forward behind the Inquisitor.
A thoroughly bedraggled man writhed in Ethelred's grip, feathered cap wildly askew. 'Get off me, you-you-' He froze at the sight of the eye.
'Forgive me, ma'm, whatever it is, I-my business arrangements are all in perfect order, you can't-'
'Oh, but I can,' the Inquisitor replied. She glanced around, and I followed her gaze. Cages, lying on the ground around us. Birds, some rudely awakened to gaze into the night sky, twittering oddly. And-
'An owl, yes. And a host of others. I represent, ma'm, an aviary. Nothing less.'
'Your man has me! I'll…'
The Inquisitor sighed. 'Singer Skorecky-'
The man's stare widened further. 'You're-one of them? Well, for the record, your performance was excellent, I never even guessed… ah, the papers are in my bag.'
I reached into his shoulder slung bag, and dragged out a wedge of parchment. My good deed for the day, helping the Inquisition. Funny how things work out, I remember thinking, very funny-
I do not know what the Inquisitor was about to say when I handed them to her. I don't even know whether they were in order, for at that moment I heard a slight twang. Ethelred grunted, and was thrown onto his back.
'Ironic,' the Inquisitor said. 'I thought him a necromancer.'
For, out of the bird merchant's chest, was a crossbow bolt.
I stood, dumbfounded. Ethelred threw the corpse off him, and groped for his axe. 'Heavier bugger than he looked.' The Inquisitor raised her fire lance, searching for a target, eyes narrowed. Around us, the crowd continued to move as normal in the night. Not especially dense enough, but no pursuer could be seen. Especially in the darkness.
'A waste of holy water. And of coin.' She turned to us. 'We move. Now.'
Hopefully, a nice cliffhanger on which to end, and let absolute hell break loose in the next instalment. I hope you've enjoyed it, and please review!