Chapter One: The Relics of Saint Malathric
Part Four: An Angel Named Clarence
In which Master Siskington escapes his richly-deserved punishment in exchange for of a life of adventure.
The discerning reader will realise that I could not write this memoir if I had died that fateful evening garroted on the floor of my bedsit flat above a garlic shop, and this is of course this case. I did lose consciousness however, so what happened next I only have second-hand.
My assailant was named Tyrone McFadden, he was a Thurian killer-for-hire and also a devout Morrowan. He had been hired by the leader of the sect into which I had insinuated myself to follow me. I had not been as clever as I thought – which was not difficult, I thought I was *awfully* clever – and the Morrowans suspected I was a double agent. Once my treachery was exposed, he was ordered to kill me. Since he was a man who favoured the personal touch, he decided to garrotte me in my flat rather than just knife me on the street or shoot me from a distance.
Unfortunately for McFadden, it happened that my lord and master, the great Scrutator Victus Semper, did not trust me as far as he could throw me either, so I had a guardian angel of sorts. As I blacked out, I had heard the sound of breaking glass. This was my rescuer, who did away with McFadden in short order and then waited for me to wake up.
So I woke up and the first thing I saw was McFadden – who I didn’t recognise as he had attacked me from behind – fastened to the wall by a crossbow bolt through his neck. His face still showed shock and surprise although the light had left the eyes. I stared at him for a long time, unable to decide how he had gotten there. Eventually after the pounding in my ears subsided I could hear a rhythmic scraping sound. When I tore my eyes away from McFadden’s corpse I looked to the bed and saw my saviour.
He was sitting on my bed with one leg atop the other, sharpening a heavy-bladed dagger. The bed was sagging under his weight, for although he was only of medium height he was stocky and wearing a full suit of white armour. At least, it might once have been white. It was covered with mud and blood, most of the latter probably belonging to poor McFadden. A crossbow rested beside him on the bed, cocked and loaded. Also piled on the bed was a tattered robe, apparently the disguise that this man wore to conceal his identity. He was that feared shock trooper of the Northern Crusade, a knight exemplar errant.
As I moved my head to look at him, he raised his eyes to meet mine. It was like meeting the stare of a hawk, who glances your way to ensure you are no threat. He saw that I was awake, and then returned to his sharpening. “Welcome back to the land of the living, old sport,” he said, in the moneyed accents of the Llaelese aristocracy. “You might want to stay there for a while, that blackguard did quite a number on your windpipe before I put a stop to him, wot?” He went on sharpening, until at some point he decided he was done, sheathed the weapon and strode across the floor to my place of repose. “My name is Brother Clarence, of the Exemplar Errant order. High Exemplar Kreoss asked me to keep an eye on you.”
My banter instinct forced a response, but all that issued forth was a dull croak. “Better keep shtum for now, old sport. Mind if I take the bed? Capital.” Clarence doffed his armour with surprising swiftness, tossed a blanket on top of me and got into my bed. “My word, is this horsehair? Much better than the barracks. I’ll be doing luxury penance tomorrow, that’s for sure! Now, you get some shut-eye and in the morning we’ll be shipping out.”
Clarence was asleep immediately, his snoring drowning out the clamour from the street outside. I could barely move, but I managed to drag the blanket over myself and tried to sleep. It had been a long day, what with the espionage and attempted murder and committed murder. Although it sent waves of pain through me, I rolled onto my side away from the corpse on the wall. Tyrone McFadden’s eyes still looked accusatory, even in death.
Morning burst in all at once when Clarence whipped open the threadbare curtains. “Get your socks on, Master Siskington, time waits for no man! We are expected at the Ostler’s Gate in fifteen minutes. Up, up, up!” He said all this with the tones of someone used to being obeyed, and it was hard to disagree. Despite the shrieking pain in my neck and back I was soon wheezing for breath and leaning against my rickety table, ready to take on the world. Clarence donned his armour and his shabby monk disguise and hauled me after him as he charged down the stairs and out in the clamour of Merwynn in the morning.
As we strode down the street several other men and women joined us. They were all in various costumes, one was a courtesan, another was wheeling a milk cart ahead of him, there were several you would say were vagabonds or thieves. Aside from a professional nod to Clarence they did not speak, but they moved up the avenue together in a v-formation. They were ready to fight, that was clear. Only when the Ostlers’ Gate hove into view did one of them, a man you would think was a peasant bowed under a hay-bale, speak to Clarence.
“All clear, sir, aside from that one blighter there don’t seem to have been much to write home about. The High Exemplar says he will meet us just outside the gate.” Clarence nodded, “Well then. Marching formation.” At this quiet command there followed a whirl of cloth and hay and instead of the disparate crew that had stood there before now the Knights Errant Exemplar stood in their shining white armour. The man who had carried the hay bale now unfurled a white and gold standard, the rest fell in behind him and Clarence and I, crossbows at the ready and swords by their side. Aside from these armaments, each carried a shield emblazoned with a Menofix, as well as a small personal set of bagpipes and a copy of the True Word of Menoth, which I believe were standard issue to every member of their order. The crowd that flowed in and out of the Ostlers’ Gate suddenly scattered or pressed themselves against nearby building. The Errants were feared for good reason: they followed orders unconditionally. Who knew whom the scrutators would take a disliking to next?
It was bizarre to be at the centre of such a repelling force, and I couldn’t help winking at some of the townsfolk as we marched past. Most of them just looked scared, but there were one or two who returned a considering look, or peeled off from the herd and headed back into the city. I tried to remember those faces, since I had the feeling they were people much like myself. There were so many powers striving for control of Merwynn in those days, and they all needed eyes and ears. Knowing which ears to misinform and which eyes to hoodwink could be valuable.
Our column exited the Ostlers’ Gate, and the High Exemplar was indeed waiting for us. With him was an impressive force, arrayed ranks of Flameguard standing to attention beside the wagons which must have held the army’s warjacks. A ring of Exemplar surrounded the High Exemplar upon his horse. He sat in consultation with Grand Scrutator Alphonse Severius, whose horse frisked slightly as if picking up its owners impatience. As the Errants approached the main force, the High Exemplar raised a hand in greeting, his bluff face splitting into a grin. “Well met, brother Clarence!” he boomed. Clarence saluted, and bowed to the Grand Scrutator. “My lords, we are ready to forge ahead. We also bring the scrutator’s servant.” I couldn’t stop myself frowning at that. Gavram Kreoss laughed at that, “Master Siskington is alive and well I see, well done. I have a letter for you, my friend.” He reached into his armour and withdrew a rust-stained envelope, leaning over his saddle to hand it down to me. I opened it immediately, seeing no point in delay:
Since you still live, I would have you know what use I expect from you on your current endeavour. You are to use your inside knowledge of the Morrowan practices to verify any intelligence intercepted by our forces on their way to the town of Tighrael, which we have identified as the site of the tomb from which the relics originate. You are also to take any opportunity presented to infiltrate the Morrowan forces there and manipulate them for our gain.
The High Exemplar sees some worth in you, but understand that the Grand Scrutator does not value your life and has made it clear that any infraction by you on this mission will not be tolerated. He considers that I have been far too gentle with someone of your malfeasance. Do not displease him.
When you return, I will have further work. It should please you to know that if you perish in service to the Great Crusade I have arranged for your soul to be placed in the service of the Lawgiver in Urcaen. Thus you can be useful in death where you failed in life.
Yours in judgement,
Scrutator Overseeing Governance, Distribution, Justification, Flagellation and Sewage.”
I read this little note with the appropriate rapt expression on my face, then refolded it and placed it inside my coat. “He’s just a big softie really, isn’t he.” An impatient noise at my elbow revealed a bald-headed squire leading a mule. I was thrown up on top like so many sacks of turnips, and at a bellow from the seneschal at the head of the column, the march was under way.
The High Exemplar pulled alongside me for a brief word: “The Scrutator does not throw away useful tools easily, my friend, but he does not bear real affection for many. He has a dog he is fond of, but that’s the extent of it. Watch yourself, and try not to get shot on our journey east.” Then he rode to the head of the column with the Grand Scrutator, leaving me alone to contemplate the fresh pile of dung my life had become. The Flameguard struck up a solemn marching dirge, which echoed across the plains and haunted my dreams:
The Great Crusade goes forth to war,
for heretics to burn;;
its blood red banner streams afar:
who for sin can yearn?
Who best can strike the mighty blow,
smashing apostates’ brains,
they will fear the Menofix, lo,
death follows in its train.