Sunday, February 13, 2011

February 13 Sample Sunday: Assassin Chronicles

This excerpt is a small section of The Red Cross of Gold IX:. The Queen of the Abyss wherein the Chevalier du Morte is trying to stave off the dragon and her minions in the underworld after having been disenchanted with the way things were going in the overworld, but a previous injury will not heal and is getting the best of him in spite of his magickal abilities.

Elizabeth’s soft shoes slapped the stone floor of the great corridor as she hurried down the hall carrying a guttering silver candlestick in her hand. Another terrifying scream echoed through the empty passage around her and made her shudder through and through. These things were happening more and more frequently now and they were worse every time. She pushed open the heavy wooden door and rushed around the bed where she set the candlestick on the bedside table before she drew back the dark velvet draperies surrounding the bed.

“Mark Andrew!” she shouted at the man who thrashed uncontrollably in the tangled bed linens.

He could not hear her. He was having another of his fits. Kicking and screaming and clutching his stomach first and then his head as great pains and convulsions wracked his body. Sweat gleamed on his skin in the light of the candle. The young woman ran from the room and back down the hall to the head of the stairs.

“Hurry! Hurry!” she shouted to the two men who came rushing up the wide steps toward her.

The two Knights passed her without a word and she turned to follow after them as they headed for his bedroom at breakneck pace.

Sir Barry was first through the door and literally flung himself onto the bed to hold the ailing man down. Guy de Lyons skirted the foot of the bed and grabbed hold of his kicking feet. Barry sat back on his stomach, pushed Mark’s arms forcefully against the carved headboard and then quickly wrapped his wrists with a braided cord suspended there for just such a purpose. He remained sitting on the Knight’s stomach as he held up the small bottle he had retrieved from his pocket. The screaming was almost constant now. They had never seen it this bad before. The Knight of the Baldric was almost bucked completely off before he could remove the cap and take a tiny bit of the precious liquid on his right middle finger.

He leaned over the Knight and crushed him bodily as he fought to hold his head still long enough to make a cross on his forehead.

The fit lasted another several seconds before gradually subsiding, while Elizabeth fell back against the wall, watching in horror. How could he possibly survive these things much longer?

Armand de Bleu stumbled into the room sleepily and came around the bed.

“Where have you been?!” Barry shouted at the younger Knight.

Armand shot a dark look at his Brother and fell to his knees beside the bed and began to repeat the prayer Mark Andrew had taught him. As the prayer drew to a close, Barry released his hold on Mark Andrew and backed off the bed to stand breathlessly by Sir de Lyons.

“That was very close,” Sir Barry grumbled and turned to look at the woman. “Where were you?!”

“I went to…” She faltered and then stopped. These men frightened her. “He sent me for some wine,” she said quickly. “I never made it down stairs.”

“Just call me next time,” Barry told her gruffly and then bent over the bed to slap Mark’s face.

Mark Andrew opened his eyes slowly to look up at the worried face of his Master at Arms.

“Get the horses!” he told them in a hoarse voice. “Bring the horses. We have to go… now.”

“You need to rest a bit first, your Grace,” Barry objected and shook his head as he untied the king’s wrists.

“Make the horses ready and wait for me. Give me an hour,” Mark Andrew relented and pushed himself up in the bed, kicking at the tangled bed linens. Elizabeth dragged them to the floor.

Sir Barry of Sussex, Knight of the Baldric, snorted his disapproval and then turned to leave the room.

Guy de Lyons, Knight of the Sword and Armand de Bleu, Knight of the Throne, trailed after him, muttering to each other about his condition and the hour and the idea of going anywhere at this time of night.

Elizabeth approached the bedside and held one hand out toward his face. He closed his eyes briefly, but she did not touch him.

“I don’t have much time,” he said when he looked up into her dark green eyes.

“I know,” she nodded. “I’ll make you a bath.”

Mark Andrew sighed and stood up slowly, holding onto the tall bedpost for support.

“Thot wud be good, lassie,” he sighed and looked down at his damp clothes and shook his head. The silver earrings jangled in his hair. At least he would be able to spend a bit of time with her before they left. He had no idea what they would find when they went out. He had been putting it off too long and now he would have to go and take his chances.

Elizabeth came back shortly and stood watching him as he pulled fresh clothes from a big, iron-bound trunk.

“Will you take me with you?” she asked hopefully.

“If you… Yes!” he nodded his head vigorously. “I will. It may help our cause.”

“I love you, Mark Andrew!” she said brightly and then hurried away to prepare the bath. The bath was the only place they had together. And their time together seemed to be growing shorter and between each of these episodes wherein she thought she would lose him and if that happened… what would happen to her?

He watched her go and then set about finding his weapons and armor in the dimly lit room. Only an low-burning oil lamp on one of the tables provided any light. But the gray panes in the window showed the sun would be rising in the east, away across the ocean below the cliff. He could smell the scent of vanilla issuing from the arched doorway that led into the ‘bathroom’. It was not a modern bathroom with all the amenities, but it was the best he could do in this place with no plumbing and no electricity. Not bad work for an alchemist. He had built many baths, but they usually sat on lab tables and were not made of stone. He was thankful it never got cold here. But then… it never changed here. Perpetual summer. Midsummer, in fact. Yes, and now it was true summer even in the overworld. He calculated the days in his head. Summer or at least very close to the first day of summer, no doubt. Midsummer’s Eve they called it. If it was the first day of summer, then why call it Mid-summer? If things were just a bit different…

He took off his damp clothes and threw them on the floor. Someone or something would take care of them for him and he would find them clean and carefully folded in his trunk the next time he needed them. Elizabeth called to him from the bathroom and he tip-toed across the cold stone floor.

Six mounted Knights waited for him an hour and a half later when he emerged from the front doors of the keep and hurried down the wide stone steps to meet them. Elizabeth followed close behind him and received six disapproving glances as she waited on the cobbles for him to make room for her behind him on the back of the black horse. She wore her finest dress and all her gold and silver at his request. She certainly looked the part of his Queen. He said nothing to the men who waited on him and simply reined the big horse around and galloped away to the south, toward the caves with them following after him. Their mantels fluttered behind them in the moonlight as they rode along. Chain mail jangled and their swords and weapons clanked as they rode single file toward an unknown destination. They wouldn’t know where they were going until they got there and each one wondered why he was taking the girl with him this time. He’d never taken her before. The sun was rising in the east and the gulls and terns were beginning to make their daily racket on the sea cliff behind them and to the right as they entered the shadowy forest. By the time they left the trees for the open plain again, they had collected a host of faery creatures, following them on both flanks and in the rear.


Chapter Two of Seventeen

that the soul be without knowledge, it is not good

“Planxty Grine!” Merry began again as she scrubbed at her apprentice’s face with a damp cloth. He was smudged black and green. “How many times do I have to tell you. One drop! One drop. You cannot hurry the sublimation with a hotter fire and you cannot make a hotter fire with more yellow.”

“But, Master…” Planxty’s grimy, freckled face was too comical for her to scold him as thoroughly as she should have. “I did only use one drop! It was not the yellow. It was the oven door. I forgot to open the door and the blast erupted upwards instead of being expelled from the side. I was unprepared.”

“Then you were leaning over the vent,” she scolded him anew. “I told you never to lean over the vent!”

“I know,” he pouted slightly. “But I think I have the hang of it now. I would like to…”

“You would like to go on now and get a shower and change clothes. It’s almost time for the banquet to start. Now, go on.” She pulled him up off the floor and then surveyed the mess on the counter. “I’ll straighten this up and then I’ll have to go change. You can clean it up tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Planxty murmured and looked disappointed.

He loved to work with all the arcane equipment in the lab. She hardly had the heart to tell him that, if things ever got straightened out, she would not be the Alchemist anymore and that he would be expected to learn the Wisdom of Solomon instead. A shudder ran up her spine at the thought of Planxty Grine wielding the magick of King Solomon and then she smiled wanly at the memory of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice and all the brooms trying to empty the flooding laboratory in Fantasia. It would be a challenge and one she would gladly have tackled if only Mark Andrew would come home again. She could not believe that she had lost him for the third time and working in his lab with his beloved equipment made her feel like crying every time she thought of him, but she had cried so much over the past several years, she could hardly have found more tears.

Simon had gone and gotten married almost immediately after Mark Andrew’s disappearance and she still didn’t know how he had met Rachel. Lucio had waited around a bit. For what, she didn’t know. She thought perhaps that he might have been waiting for her to ask him to move back to Scotland with her, but she hadn’t and he hadn’t pursued it. He had come often to visit Marco and had brought Lucia to see her, but they had never really had any serious discussions, arguments or even deep conversations about anything since Mark Andrew had simply ridden away in the middle of the night.

Lucio had seemed almost as devastated as she had been when it became obvious that Mark was not coming back. They had both lost a Brother. She had lost the love of her life and he had lost his surrogate father and his best friend. Ramsay had practically raised him from the age of fourteen or so. Dambretti had idolized Ramsay and practically worshipped him as his apprentice and then called him Brother of the Order for almost a thousand years. Certainly his grief was no less heartfelt than hers, regardless of the strained relationship between the three of them for the past fifty years, give or take a few years. Now Lucio was a newly wed and Seneschal for the Order of the Red Cross of Gold and would be returning to Italy to resume the duties of that Office again after a short respite granted for his wedding and brief honeymoon.

“Jasmine!” she whispered the name aloud. She glanced at her watch. Surely they had arrived by now and she had missed them. What a great hostess she was and Lucia, her daughter, would be coming with him. She hadn’t seen Marco’s twin sister in three months!

Planxty! Damn it! She made sure the furnace was cold and all danger had passed before she hurried up the stairs to the kitchen and then on to the second floor to her bedroom to clean up and change clothes. She glanced out the window into the back yard. The caterers were lighting the patio torches and the stringed paper lanterns hanging about the tables already glowed with festive orange lights. She could see the Grand Master sitting with the Ritter at the main table and William Montague leaning across the table, speaking with him. Simon and Rachel were still at the pit, sitting in yard chairs, staring intently into the yawning black opening at something Louis Champlain was fighting with on the grill. Simon held one of his younger sons on his shoulder, while his wife bounced the baby on her knee. A tall, elegantly dressed woman was trying to help Louis with whatever it was that was giving him trouble.

She could hear the woman’s laughter and see Louis’ discomfiture. Mrs. Dambretti, no doubt. But where was Lucio? She didn’t see him anywhere. Turk, the old cook, was standing back with his big, muscular arms folded across his chest, shaking his head in apparent disgust, a watering bucket near his feet, ready to extinguish any flaming children or guests if necessary. The other young d’Ornans were chasing about the patio wreaking havoc on everything within reach. The older children were weaving in and out the tables, chasing each other with party horns and squeakers.

She turned away from the window and almost screamed at the sight of the Italian standing in the open doorway looking at her with his arms folded over his chest.

“Lucio!” she said and pressed one hand over her heart.

“Sister,” he said and flashed his winning smile briefly before crossing the room to give her the Templar kiss.

“What are you doing up here?” she asked and looked about as if she were lost.

“Louis told me that you don’t eat,” he said. “Simon told me that you don’t sleep. Konrad said that you spend all your time cooped up in our Brother’s dungeon, smelling fumes and making decoctions all day. You are a bag of nerves, Merry. You look awful. Did you know that?”

“I’ll have you know that Planxty Grine blew up the laboratory again and I had to clean it up… not to mention, clean him up as well!” she said defensively. “Did you come up here to insult me, Brother?”

“No. I came to say hello and see how you were doing for myself,” he told her and backed away as she began to tear about the room looking for the clothes she intended to wear. “I had thought you might come down to meet my beloved wife.”

“I am coming down to meet Jasmine!” she snapped. “Surely you don’t want me to come down like this?" She pulled out the hem of the smudged white blouse and looked at him incredulously from an equally smudged face.

“I’m sorry. You are always beautiful to me, Meredith. No matter what you are wearing or how filthy you are,” he told her in all seriousness.

“Gee, thanks. Graci, Signor.” She found the dress she was looking for and began to push him from the room. “Now go and see to your new bride before she finds you up here in my bedroom. Not wise, Golden Eagle. Not wise at all.”

Lucio kicked the door shut behind him and took her in his arms, pulling her close, kissing her as if they were the newlyweds, even against all her protests until she stopped beating on him and returned the kiss sincerely.

“Merry," he said softly into her hair as he pressed her head against his shoulder and began to cry. “I know you miss Mark Andrew and so do I, but you have to come to grips with the fact that he may not return this time. I know he always came back before, but…”

“Lucio, stop…” Merry had managed not to cry in several weeks, but this was too much. Tears ran down her face and she became angry with him for causing it. “Please. Just go down stairs. I’ll be fine. Just leave me alone a bit and tell Jasmine that I’m sorry I missed her arrival. OK?”

Lucio let go of her and then opened the door.

“There’s one other thing, Sister.” He looked back at her. “Jasmine is… not like you. Not like you at all. I hope you won’t be too mad at me for marrying her.”

“Mad at you?" She frowned at him. “Why should I be mad at you? I don’t blame you for getting married again, Lucio. And if you think I’m jealous…”

“No, no. Not jealous. Just mad,” he said and looked confused. “She’s just... not like you. Not like you at all. I didn’t mean to find someone so different. I mean I wanted to apologize to you for…”

“OK, OK,” Merry nodded. “OK. So she’s not like me. Fine. Rachel is not like me either. That’s good. It wouldn’t do for a bunch of me’s to be wandering around in close proximity to me, now, would it?”

“I guess you have a point. I’ll see you downstairs, Sister,” he said, smiled again and pulled the door closed gently between them.

Merry burst into a flood of tears and rushed into the bathroom, slamming the door with a resounding boom.

How could he have married this woman? An outsider. She knew he still loved her and she still loved him and even if they could never be together, at least they had Paris… She frowned at herself in the mirror and began to laugh hysterically. Without thinking, she rearranged a vase of fresh flowers on the vanity.

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