Sunday, April 21, 2013

Night's Wraith Chapter 1


I began this and stopped.




Night’s Wrath

By Dane Grannon

Chapter 1

 

    I pulled my cloak tight against the harsh north wind and urged the horse to a trot. Snowflakes danced around my head as an opening act to the approaching blizzard. If the Happy Traveler Inn wasn’t over the next hill, the storm would engulf me and I’d never reach shelter. Then my faith would be all that remained to sustain me. Given the events of the last few months, I doubted my chances.

    Near whiteout conditions closed in as I crested the hill. Shivering drove red hot nails into my wounded shoulder. If the situation wasn’t so dire, I would have rested for a week before answering another Bishop’s call. Such is the life of the Arch-Bishop’s Prelates. Fallen comrades require that we ride even with four score stitches closing a seeping wound..

    My eyes traced the trail as it wound down the hill and up the other side. The shadowy form of a building lay within a copse of olive trees. If it wasn’t the inn, I’d still request shelter. The pious would be honored to provide succor while the gold in my purse would convert skeptics.

    The horse’s impatient shake focused my thoughts and I nudged him forward. The falling temperature sapped my reason. We descended the hill and traversed the path up the other side. The shadowy building resolved into a small inn with an attached stable.

The stable door was open, so I rode inside and put the gelding into a stall. After dismounting, I patted it on the nose and removed the saddle. “I’ll have the innkeeper bring out some oats.”

Three horses occupied the other stalls. The flanks of two steamed and their coats glistened. My hackles twitched. Why would anyone gallop along an icy path?

After ensuring my sword was free in its scabbard, I collected my staff and approached the main building. The roaring wind masked all sounds until I opened the door.

Two muscular soot-covered men dressed in smiths’ aprons and armed with hammers had the innkeeper trapped in a corner. The rat-like man utilized a stool as a shield blocking a torrent of blows.

    I raised my staff and yelled, “Unhand him at once, villains!”

    The man on the left faced me“Finish him, I’ll handle this.”

He raised his hammer and took a step forward. “It’s none of your business. Stay back..”

The innkeeper squeaked. “Help! Murder!”

I dropped my winter cloak, revealing my insignia. “I’m a Prelate. This is my business.” My shoulder howled a protest as I twirled the staff into an attack position. “Drop your weapons.”

A blow from the far man shattered the stool.

The innkeeper shrieked and fell to the floor.

The man before me glanced away and lowered his guard at the cry. He wasn’t a trained fighter – just a ruffian out for some quick gold.

    With a quick strike, I disarmed him then cracked his temple on the recoil. I was across the room engaging the other attacker before the former hit the floor. My staff intercepted the partner’s hammer during its downward stroke toward the defenseless innkeeper’s head. With a flip of the wrist, I sent the hammer smashing back into his face. The partner crashed backwards.

    I stepped in front of the innkeeper. “Stay down.”

    The man squealed.

    The first attacker pulled himself to his feet. “Kill him! Before it’s too late.”

I raised my staff. Its runes glowed with stored power. “This innocent man shall not be harmed. Take your horses and ride now or your lives will be forfeit.”

The attacker beside me pointed at the innkeeper. “You don’t understand. That thing’s a monster.”

Desperation flowed through his speech. “I will adjudicate your case. This is neither the time nor place for vigilante justice. Place your hammers by the door.”

Behind me, the innkeeper sobbed. “Noble sir, they bear false witness.”

The snow squall passed. The setting sun’s red rays flooded the room.

The blacksmiths looked at each other. The one by the door motioned to his partner. “It’s too late! Get out of here!” The men bolted for the door.

I let them run. They would be dealt with in the morning. The innkeeper locked the door as two horses galloped away. I sank into the only upright chair. “Innkeeper, please fetch a brandy.” The wetness on my shoulder informed me that the wound was bleeding again. Perhaps, after I prayed tonight, I would be healed by morning. Assuming that I was back in favor – an unlikely event at best.

The innkeeper walked over and bowed. “Prelate, I beg your pardon. This is a poor inn. There is no brandy.” He bowed a second time.

I tried to give an understanding smile. The way I felt, it probably resulted in a grimace. “Send your boy to tend my horse. Then ale and dinner. I haven’t eaten all day.”

The innkeeper bowed. “At once, Prelate.” He bowed again. “May I, Prelate? Might I please?”

I raised my right hand up to his.

He grasped it and kissed my signet ring. “Thank you, Prelate. I am most grateful.”

I withdrew my hand. “You may show your gratitude by bringing my dinner.”

The man bowed again and backed away. “Of course. At once. I beg your pardon.”

I looked out the window. The bottom of the sun kissed the horizon. In a few minutes, it would go to bed and I’d join it.

The innkeeper appeared from the kitchen carrying a flagon and a plate of bread. He placed them before me and bowed. “Your stew will be warm shortly. May I, Prelate? May I?”

Once again I held out my right hand. I wish people would stop doing that. I am a carpenter’s son, not a nobleman.

The innkeeper kissed my signet ring. “Thank you. A thousand times thank you.”

I pulled back my hand and surreptitiously wiped it on my trousers. “It is my honor to be chosen to serve.” I took a bite of bread to inhibit further dialog.

He bowed himself back to the kitchen.

I checked my shoulder. Blood soaked my shirt.

As I stuffed a handkerchief over the wound, the innkeeper returned with a plate of stew.

My stomach growled. I took another bite of bread as he placed the plate before me. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

I nodded then turned and looked out the window. Outside only a finger width of sun remained above the horizon. My head spun from blood loss.

The innkeeper crossed behind me to the china cabinet. “Several months ago, a passing merchant died in his sleep. I recovered twenty pounds of tea from his personal effects. I could never have afforded the two pounds I was awarded as a recovery fee.”

A cup was placed on a saucer. The innkeeper’s words faded in and out.  “It was very lucky that you came along when you did. They were too early for me to really defend myself.”

I swallowed. “I will gladly pay extra for a good cup of tea.”

The cabinet rattled behind me. “That would be the first time a Prelate ever paid for anything.” The innkeeper’s voice grew deeper as he spoke.

I took a bite of the wonderful stew as I struggled to clear my head. “Unfortunately, too many of my brethren extort extravagant tithes from honest merchants. My policy is to pay for extraordinary services.”

The horizon swallowed the sun. A blue light cast my shadow on the wall facing me. A nauseating wave of evil crashed over me.

From behind, a voice hissed. “Yes. You will pay.”

My heart exploded as a blue lightning-wrapped blade protruded from my chest.  

***

    Morning sunlight streaming through the window woke me from the most vibrant dream in my life. I rolled over onto my left side and immediately caught myself. The anticipated pain failed to materialize. I sat up and examined my shoulder. The bandage and the wound were gone. Neither scab nor scar marked its former location.

    I stretched. No residual pain from anywhere. I felt completely revived. I must be back in favor. That was strange as I didn’t remember saying my prayers. The last thing I remembered was …

    The memory of a sword protruding my chest flooded into consciousness. My heart pounded and I felt my sternum. It must have been part of the dream.

    It startled me when I stood and noticed my undressed reflection in the mirror. Besides bathing, a Prelate is never unclothed. Appearing so lessens the dignity of the office.

    The room around me contained the battered, yet serviceable, furnishings of the nice rooms in a standard inn. A search of the dresser failed to uncover any clothing, so I improvised a toga from the bed sheet and stood by the door listening.

    Downstairs a solitary small-sized person wearing boots walked back and forth accompanied by the sound of sweeping. As silently as possible, I opened the door and crept to the railing at the top of the stairs.

    The rat-looking innkeeper looked up. “Good morning, Prelate. I took the liberty of washing your clothing. I will bring them up.”

    I nodded and returned to my room. My prayers were performed at the small shrine by the window. When I stood, my clothing and weapons lay on the bed.

    I pulled on my shirt and noticed a large mended tear in the back and front. The holes perfectly matched the location of the wounds in my vision. Upon my sword, I do not remember how I acquired them.

    The smells of sausages and biscuits drifted into the room from below. My stomach informed me of its emptiness. Some jerky eaten while on horseback was the last repast I remembered.

    A breakfast of sausage gravy and eggs greeted me at the table adjacent to the china cabinet. With all the dignity of my office, I slowly sat and performed a blessing. The tingling that customarily accompanied the task failed to materialize. This surprised me as I’d received a healing blessing while sleeping.

The innkeeper bowed before me as I sat. “Prelate, may I? It is such an honor to have one of your station staying at my humble inn.”

I raised my hand for him to kiss my signet ring, but it was missing. I paused and looked at my hand. Sweat flowed as my heart pounded. As the symbol of office and the focus for my powers, the signet ring had remained on my hand since ordination. No wonder the simple blessing failed.

The innkeeper noticed my hesitation. He dug into his vest pocket. “I found this while sweeping. I believed it to be yours, but I would never presume.”

I took the ring and began slipping it on my finger.  A spark leapt from the ring to my hand. My signet fell to the table. By all that’s Holy!

Only the utmost control and discipline allowed me to maintain composure. I withdrew a silk handkerchief from my pocket as the innkeeper knelt down and retrieve the fallen symbol. “I have been remiss in cleaning my ring. It is quite slippery.”

The man placed the ring on the handkerchief. He lowered his head and stood stoop shouldered. “It is my fault, Prelate. I should have cleaned it at once. I beg forgiveness. What is my penance?”

I thought carefully. The scene of my father losing his right hand for similar non-offense played through my mind. “My faithful servant, your penance is to recite the catechism an additional time each night until your conscious is clear.”

His eyes raised. “Thank you, Prelate. I am unworthy.”

I folded the handkerchief around my signet. “Your humility is a sign of true virtue. I will require my horse immediately upon completion of this wonderful repast.”

He bowed and backed away.

Although his groveling disgusted me, I accepted it. If I allowed exceptions for me, the peasants may neglect the honors for others. Their subsequent punishment would be on my head. My conscious could never bear that.

The handkerchief slipped into my pocket. I have many sins to atone for.

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