Authors: E.C. Ambrose
Copyright © 2014 by E. C. Ambrose.
All Rights Reserved.
Jacket art by Cliff Nielsen.
Jacket design by G-Force Design.
Book designed by The Barbarienne’s Den.
DAW Books Collector’s No. 1656.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).
All characters in the book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63741-8
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“Since it is just that he who knows how to kill, should learn how to die.”
he gray of
the evening sky deepened as Elisha walked to the churchyard. The church itself leaned a bit to the left, its ruined steeple pointing up toward the duke’s castle; accusing or beseeching, it was hard to say. Riders jangled by, talking and laughing, on their way to the grand masked ball, their chatter drifting over the walls into what should be a peaceful place. His business here would likely be brief, and he would be back at the castle in plenty of time to dodge the visitors and return to the comfort of his infirmary. He wanted to check on the scullion’s new baby, not to mention that man-at-arms with the wounded leg. So far, no sign of putrefaction, but the fellow was terrified he’d have to lose his leg and his livelihood. Elisha hoped the noise of the ball wouldn’t disturb them and that the flow of wine and ale wouldn’t bring a flow of drunken nobles tumbling into his own domain.
The ribs of burned-out houses and barns still loomed over the streets, but a few had been dismantled, fresh stone laid for new foundations, and piles of cut saplings waited to be woven into walls. Two houses, at least, had already been built to the roofs, tiles gleaming dully with the rays of the distant sun as smoke curled from the chimneys. Elisha took careful stock of all that he saw, looking for movement, looking for new places someone might hide. Tension crept into his shoulders, much as he tried to keep it back, to focus on his duty. Nothing else caught his eye, but Elisha still stretched his awareness, allowing tendrils of his strength to move over the ground, aware of the families in each house, the sheep in each fold, the cat that slunk through a blackened barn in search of mice.
Even the graves lay unquiet after the battle, crosses askew, the handful of stone monuments broken or flattened by the bombards’ blasts and the rumble of siege engines. Elisha picked his way toward the far side, where the low wall had been dismantled to expand the yard and a series of mounds, still high over the new graves, showed where the soldiers lay. A hunched figure bent over, shovel across his shoulder, examining the shrouded remains of the latest corpse.
The figure gave a twitch and turned, straightening as much as possible, the lumpish face curling into recognition. The fellow had been here through the battle, burying the dead of the king’s army and of the hospital where Elisha did his best. Now he worked for Duke Randall’s village. Gravediggers didn’t choose sides.
Elisha gave a nod, but noticed the flutter of the shroud as if the gravedigger had been searching beneath it, not merely measuring the corpse for a grave. He narrowed his eyes. “Which side did he fight for?”
“Who can say, now? Anything worth money’s been stripped, eh? And his clothes don’t tell much—been a month in the woods, ain’t he?” The gravedigger grinned and shrugged, then set his shovel to the earth. “Didn’t expect nobody but the priest.”
Elisha moved past, facing the grave between them and the pale cloth of the shroud. The cracked bell in the crooked tower gave a thunk, then another, and a third, each with a groan of rope over pulley that suggested how hard the priest must work to get even that pitiful sound.
A week had passed since the last funeral, and he had thought it might be truly the last, until a few children found this sorry fellow half-buried in a blast pit by the trees. The first funerals he attended here included relatives of the deceased, the camp followers or nearby townsmen who still recognized their own. But time degraded the dead until their families would not have known them and most of the fallen had been already laid to rest. The gatherings dwindled to a few sympathetic townsfolk, and even then they wanted to know if the dead were of the king’s army—which had set the torch to their homes—or of the duke’s, as if the duke’s bombards had spared them any grief. Elisha had effectively fought for both sides, impressed to the king’s army before delivering the ultimate victory for the duke himself. He came as much for his brother’s sake as for the soldiers’, as if he could make up for that one funeral he had missed.
Father Michael crossed the yard, wringing his hands and shaking out his fingers, the lines of his face deepened by the sinking sun. He, too, nodded at Elisha. The three men stood around the grave as the priest crossed them and the corpse and spoke in Latin. Elisha’s outspread awareness as much as the monotone of the priest’s voice suggested that this task had moved from reverence to rote.
Father Michael led another prayer, followed by Elisha’s quiet, “Amen,” and the grunt of the gravedigger, then sprinkled holy water and turned away toward the church.
“Give us a hand, mate,” the gravedigger muttered, waving Elisha closer with a flap of his wrist.
Pushing back his sleeves, Elisha came forward, squatting to lift the corpse’s shoulders. The body gave in his hands, a softness foreign to healthy flesh, and Elisha swallowed the bile in his throat.
“Give ’im the toss.” The gravedigger chuckled, but he moved carefully enough to lay his end of the body into the grave.
Still, Elisha stumbled and nearly slipped in afterward, the head and shoulders flopping heavily from his hands into the hole. A ripe odor drifted from the shroud, along with a few flies, and Elisha drew back, looking away for a breath of fresher air. Just to breathe in the stench of corpses opened one to disease. He straightened and tipped his head back, the clatter of hooves and merry voices rising from the road. The slightest thrill of interest touched him from afar and Elisha turned.
A bolt whizzed past, snagging the cloth of his shoulder with a sharp tug.
With a curse, Elisha leapt aside, tumbling into the half-filled grave as a second bolt whipped through the spot where he’d been standing and cracked against the dirt wall. His shoulder stung, and the corpse beneath him gave an exhalation of foul air. Recoiling from the stink, hand pressed over his mouth, Elisha froze. If he stuck his head up now, the archer might have a third shot. Damn it! His heart hammered loud in the narrow space. His eyes watered as the stench invaded his nostrils, but he held his stomach in check. Even without his extra senses, he heard the horses galloping off.
“Christ on the Cross, two in one grave!” The gravedigger peered down at him, a shovelful of dirt poised in his hands.
“Barber! What’s happened?” Father Michael ran up. “I was checking the garden when I heard you cry out.”
Elisha blinked up at the two faces silhouetted against the evening sky. “Someone shot at me,” he managed. “Probably gone.”
The priest paused a moment to look around then reached down. Elisha took his arm and climbed out of the grave, brushing off dirt and shaking his head. He frowned down at his shoulder where a thin line of blood marked the rip in his tunic. The evening breeze swept over him, wiping away the reek of death.
“In a churchyard, no less!” Father Michael frowned as well, or rather his lined face fell into the expression it seemed made for, then he bent to lift the fallen bolt, short and new, with a sharp head for piercing flesh. Holding it close to his nose to examine it, he said, “No fletcher’s mark.”
Hefting his shovel, the gravedigger started to scatter dirt over the corpse. “Woulda been convenient, eh, dying in a graveyard?”
“Not tonight,” Elisha replied. He wiped his face and took the bolt. The tip gave a chill tingle, marked with the intention of his death. A small crossbow could be carried loaded, easily hidden beneath a cloak or simply dangling at a horse’s pommel, ready for use. Half the barons called for his blood, but they wanted a public execution. This wasn’t an attempt at justice but an assassination.
“Come wait in the church—Morag here will send a boy for the duke’s men to see you home.”
The gravedigger huffed as he tossed in another shovelful.
“Go on,” Father Michael prodded.
Morag gave a long look at the corpse, then put up his shovel and stumped off into the streets. A moment later, he could be heard banging on a door. Elisha kept glancing around as he followed the priest. His magical senses warned him, true enough, but they told him little else. A boy ran off in the direction of the castle, the gravedigger stumped back to his task, a pair of dogs snarled and tussled over something they’d found in a cellar hole. With a grand gesture, the priest ushered Elisha into the chilly church with its high, rectangular windows cutting bits of sky through the heavy stone. Father Michael paused to cross himself with a little bow, more like a lady’s curtsy, then raised a brow until Elisha followed suit, then he shut the door at their backs with a solid thud.
The priest busied himself lighting a few tapers from the massive spiraled candle kept burning at the Lady altar—a donation from the duke, its curled length representing the number of dead.
“So …” Father Michael found a cloth and began to wipe down the altar. “Have you repented yet?”
“Sorry?” Elisha turned from the windows.
“Have you repented of your regicide?” The priest met his gaze, dark eyes reflecting the thin light of candles.
Elisha gripped the bolt a little tighter. Repented of killing a tyrant? At the time, he wanted all the killing to end: the deaths of the common soldiers and of his own friends, held hostage to the tyrant’s will—not to mention saving Duke Randall, whom the king wished Elisha to kill. He had not meant to take magic into his own hands to slay the king, but the king’s death had brought an end to the battle that caused so much pain. The idea of killing, and the manner of it, still disturbed him, but to regret that the tyrant was dead? “It’s not a simple matter, Father.”
“It is to God.”
“Then I’ll take it up with Him.”
“Not if you are in Hell,” the priest said, bracing his hands on the altar and leaning forward so the flame turned his wrinkles into crevasses. “Not if you are bound there sooner than you think. Myself, I have doubted the rumor of sorcery, believing that any man so devoted to attend to funerals cannot be so … diabolical. But if I am mistaken, Barber, then only true repentance can save you.”
“I will repent of my actions when God repents of killing babies—or the mothers who would bear them.” Elisha turned away, blowing out a breath, but his shoulders ached, the bolt wearing a line into his palm. He had not meant to speak so harshly, and he could sense the stillness of the priest at his back.
“It is not up to you to judge the Lord.”
He could leave now—likely the archer was already in the castle, masked and dancing, camouflaged by a hundred others. If Elisha found a mask of his own, he might hide likewise and seek among the company for the one who sought his harm. He jerked at the knock on the door, then relaxed as Lord Robert, one of the duke’s staunch retainers, stuck his head in.
“Father? Elisha! What’s happened? The boy said somebody’d been shot.”
“Nearly.” Elisha held up the bolt. “One of the duke’s guests, or somebody riding with them, tried to kill me.”
“The prince’s guests—surely his Grace wouldn’t abide anyone who’d shoot his surgeons.” Robert crossed himself and ducked his head then gestured Elisha toward the door. “No matter, we’re with you now. I’ve got seven men.”
“Think on what I’ve said, Barber,” the priest called after them. “An eternity of torment awaits the sinner down below.”
Elisha said nothing as he moved into the night. Ambushed twice on holy ground—the first time for his body, and the second for his soul.