by Tom Underhill
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Robed arms delicately encircle the youth’s body.
“Careful... He’s so fragile...”
“...anyone see him fall?”
“...talked of pain in his head...”
“...just collapsed? Why haven’t you fetched the hot water yet? Run, blast you!”
“...calm, Brother Gable... Scalding him won’t help... Gently, Brother Tack, gently...”
The arms raise him into the air, each point of contact setting off ripples of acid.
“...his brand was glowing...”
“...it matter if he used his gifts? ...stop gawking and help, for Light’s sake!”
“Sit down, Brother Gable! ...not doing anyone any favors... Thank you... wouldn’t worry... prophecies aren’t through with him...”
The arms lower him onto padded cloth and slowly retreat, leaving the youth reeling from the impossibly hard impact.
“If he’s the One...”
“Stay seated, Brother Gable... Brother Tack, even if that weren’t akin to blasphemy... Not something to discuss now.”
“...permission to take... mount to Lotenville? ...doctor there... served us well in the past.”
“Granted, my son. Take the roan. Make all haste.”
“How much time do you think we have, Father?”
The pain remains, but it lessens just enough for him to crack open an eye.
“It’s not for me to say, Brother Corver. Perhaps... He stirs! Praise the Light!”
* * *
How weak he was, to be lured by this temptation again and again, knowing full well where the indulgence would lead. How predictable. How pathetic.
The woman swallowed. “How... how did you heal my baby? She was blee... bleeding so much... so fast...”
He said nothing for several moments, gauging the beers’ effects by slowly rolling his head back and forth. “Like I said, it’s better if you don’t know, Miss. Just forget it. Best if you just forget it.”
“If you wish. But sir, excuse me for asking, but... You weren’t in pain before... before earlier, were you? Before you did that? You looked fine...”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Miss. Just forget it.”
The woman bit her lip, looking anywhere but at the cowled head in front of her. Finally, after a deep breath and a visible gathering, she leaned across the table and kissed his brand too quickly for him to prevent.
“Thank you,” she said quietly into his stunned, bewildered expression. The hand not holding up his hood softly traced the rest of the marking, lingering on the portion her lips had touched. “I’ve told no one... about who you are. And I won’t.”
Suddenly embarrassed again, she withdrew her hand and dropped her eyes back to the table. An awkward moment passed before she rose again and pulled at her daughter to do the same.
Resisting her mother’s direction with a squirm, the girl produced a stone from her pocket, shined to a glassy sheen by her young energy. “Here.” She pressed the black pebble into the hand still sprawled next to the empty mug. After closing his fingers around the gift, she smiled and gave in to her mother’s tugging.
The stranger watched wordlessly as they left, the memory on his brow and the slight weight in his palm momentarily recalling the earlier wave of calm.
* * *
“Explain this to me, Brother Gable.” The young man points angrily to the rumpled form lying at their feet, a blue radiance only just now receding from the brand around his eye. “Justify it, rationalize it, back it with a straight face. I’d love to hear it.”
The monk stares fixedly at the ground.
“Self-defense, lad. He would—”
“Blast it, man, then why did it feel so good? Why is the pain gone? Why can I look at that lamp without cringing for the first time in ages? Where was this in your cursed prophecy?”
Slowly raising his eyes to the ceiling, the monk pauses for some moments before answering. “I can’t tell you how to wield this, lad... Trust in Brother Jonders and the Light. Let them be your guides.”
The young man laughs derisively and jabs again at the floor. “Can they tell me why I stopped his heart instead of his fist? Can you?”
The monk shifts his weight, ponders for another short while, and eventually looks back down at his questioner. “One action of destruction cannot cancel out all the good you’ve already done and will do, lad. It—”
“Doesn’t it though? Am I not now neutral or worse? How can I be your rallying cry now? Innocent blood! On my hands! And my grip slipped so easily, so readily.”
“Your attacker was far from innocent.”
“He was a beloved member of the abbey as early as this morning.”
They stand in silence for several breaths. The monk turns away first, eliciting a second cold laugh from the young man.
“Would your exception be made for an ungifted peasant? Would you try and deflect the true nature of his crimes, cover up his sins like I’m sure you’re already planning to do for your blasted savior? Brother Gable?”
“Trust in the Light, lad. It works in ways we can’t begin to fathom...”
The young man chuckles grimly once more and nudges the rumpled form with his foot. “I see no power here but my own, Brother Gable. Do you?”
* * *
The voices trickled back in around the edges of his consciousness.
“...not often you see a whore working with her child...”
“...not a bad looker, though...”
“...but he turned her down... even after that kiss...”
“See? He is odd. Did you note the way she jumped when she saw his face? The stories say the Demon bears a mark over his right eye.”
“He’s probably just plain ugly, Briad. It’s an old wives’ tale. Propaganda. Leave him be.”
“Speaking of ugly, why don’t you shave off that damn serpent tattoo tonight? ...eyes hurt the more I look at it... not even well done...”
“Close them, then. I owe it to Jenowade to check.”
“Just finish your drink. Peace, Briad! Sit down!”
This shout in combination with the loud scraping of a chair being shoved back stirred the stranger from nursing his final cup. He cursed himself soundlessly for not leaving when he had the chance, as boots trod heavily to his table.
“I’ll have my answer, Kayon, whether you countenance my asking or not. Stranger! Remove your hood and look me in the eye for just a moment and I’ll trouble you no further.”
The stranger fingered the handle of his mug, shaking his head almost but not quite imperceptibly.
“Let him be, Briad!”
“Quiet! Look me in the eye of your own will, Stranger, while you still have the choice of it.”
Resigned to the coming transgression, he slowly raised his gaze.
* * *
“I won’t be your tool, Brother Gable.” The man sips from his cup.
“I ask you only to be yourself.”
Increasing heat from the fire causes the man to readjust his body into a less exposed arrangement. “You asked me to be the savior of your dying religion. But I think it’s apparent to us both that I don’t have the fiber or the self-control to be that model, that inspiration. And I lack your faith. I always have.”
The monk’s eyes glitter with intensity. “Trust me, then. I know you have the strength, lad. I’ve seen it on too many occasions not to. The control will return, but spirits aren’t the way to summon it back. They never are. This growing indulgence of yours... concerns me, to say the least.”
“More than what happens when I don’t imbibe? The pain only recedes in one of two ways. Alcohol seems by far the lesser of the two evils. No one’s hurt but myself.” The man reaches for the bottle at his side, his gaze staying on the monk even as he pours.
“And no one is saved. This isn’t the true path, lad. You may have to bear the pain before you can overcome it.”
“I fear what I may do in that interval. Even if you don’t. If this is a test, Brother Gable, I’ve failed. Accept it as I do.” Downing his newly full cup, the man reaches again for the bottle.
“I’ll never accept the failure of our faith, lad. You can’t fail: it’s been foretold. That one, like you, would come with such power, and such grace—”
“Then you marked the wrong child.”
The monk’s gaze flickers to the man’s brow before he can check its motion; at a loss, the monk looks away and shakes his head. “The symbol only unlocks your inner potential, lad.”
“I won’t be your false idol. If your prophecies speak the truth, they speak it of another.”
The monk whirls back, the intensity returning to his eyes as he leans forward urgently. “You’ve already fulfilled so many of the requirements, given so many of the signs, done so much in so short a time. And you still have more, so much more to accomplish. Don’t do this, lad.”
“I’m sorry, Brother Gable. But as you’ve already guessed, I asked you here tonight to tell you that I’m leaving tomorrow.”
* * *
The man named Briad yelled in alarm, then excitement, then religious resolve. Tables groaned as they overturned, blades hissed as they slid free of sheaths. Shouts for blood, Jenowade, and the Demon’s death quickly warred with and overwhelmed the few calls for caution and calm. The stranger felt a hand grasp his collar, jerk him upwards, dare a defense.
He closed his bloodshot eyes, and all sound stopped.
He felt a hand snatch itself away, and sensed an arm start to spasm.
He opened his clear eyes, and watched a shimmering snake free itself of a shaking forearm and wind upwards.
He raised his gaze to the ceiling and battled euphoria as a throat gurgled and a weight hit the floor.
* * *
“Reconsider, lad, I beg you.”
“I’m sorry to break your trust, Brother Gable, but I can’t be something I don’t believe in.” The wanderer shoulders his pack, checking to make sure the straps won’t chafe as he does so.
“You’re turning your back on your chance to save the world. You will realize that.”
“All I’ve realized is that this isn’t a “gift.” This is a flaw, my flaw, and I won’t subject others to my failing any longer.” The wanderer begins to walk, picking up speed as he heads for the misfit forest opening up ahead of him.
The monk hurries along beside him as best he can. “We sheltered you here these past years for a reason, lad. You can work miracles. You can make people believe. You can save us, save us all. If you would only believe yourself, believe in yourself...”
“I believe in your kindness and your hospitality, and I thank you for these many years of it. But not this unasked-for power. Let me be — as I will let others be, if I’m strong enough.”
“Goodbye, Brother Gable.” The wanderer passes through the redbrick gate, the furthest limits of abbey grounds.
Stopping with a frown, the monk clears his throat to say something more and then pauses, as if debating the wisdom of doing so.
The wanderer strides on.
* * *
Downing his last drink in solitude, the stranger savored the bitter aftertaste with a slow roll of his tongue. Scaly green ink and crimson vitality pooled together at his feet for some time before he eventually set the cup down, fascinated by the way the stain crept ever larger as the two hues merged slowly to a single, oily black...
Looking away, he stared next at each of the room’s lamps. As punishment for the discomfort they’d so recently caused him, he winked them out with a thought, doing his best to ignore the parallel between these extinguishings and the bloodier one perpetrated moments earlier.
Shaking his head, the stranger stood to his full, unbowed height and fumbled in his pocket for a suitable fee. What coins he had he scattered about his mug before beginning to walk away, navigating by the blue glow emanating from his still pulsing brand.
But he couldn’t help hesitating over the rumpled form once more, his eyes drawn back to its puddle of wasted life and spent tattoo. Pausing in mid-stride to reach into his pocket, he removed the girl’s black pebble, rubbed it once, and spent several moments comparing its shiny darkness to that of the fluid below. Finally, with a quiet sigh, he placed the stone upon the damp vest, centering it between the middle buttons.
Nodding slowly, the stranger straightened and left the tavern.
* * *
“It may be best then, lad, if the world never comes to know your name at all.”
The reply comes without so much as a hitch in gait, a backwards glance, or a scrap of hesitation. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill