“Enter,” said Elania Reynard as she smoothed the skirt of her plain gray robe, wrinkled from hours of kneeling prayer. She was small and frail, just past girlhood, her long hair sun-yellow and her face pale and delicate. Standing in her drab cell she seemed a golden flower blossoming among stones.
The cell door opened and Elania bowed her head as the Reverend Mother Rowenna Val Jannan swept in, an aristocratic woman taller than most men, proud and coolly attractive. Her black hair, silvering at the temples, was tied in a long braid that fell to the back of her knees. Her robe was similar to Elania's; the only indications of her rank were her demeanor and the blue and silver silk shawl draped across her shoulders. A man unfamiliar to Elania accompanied the Reverend Mother. He was tall, standing over six feet, broad-shouldered and lean-hipped. He was clad in blue and black, a leather sword belt buckled around his waist and knee-high leather boots encasing his legs, all travel-worn but of obvious quality. Long jet-black hair framed his sharp and strongly molded face. He folded muscular arms across his chest and looked at Elania thoughtfully.
Elania kept her head bowed, her bangs shading her face, and clasped her hands. She shifted slightly then blushed. She was not use to men being in the abbey-proper at night. The lay-brothers who served the Silver Abbey of Taman Hill either slept in separate barracks or lived in Taman, and none looked anywhere near as formidable as this stranger. The man smiled, as if he divined her thoughts, and Elania's blush deepened. A brief smile flickered across the Reverend Mother's full lips, fond and affectionate. She sighed softly. “Have you come to a decision, my Daughter?” Her rich contralto voice projected concern.
Elania nodded. “Yes, Reverend Mother.”
“You are under no obligation,” said the Reverend Mother. “You are still in your novitiate, and what he asks for is not part of any of the Starqueen's traditions.”
“I know.” Elania's voice had fallen to the barest of whispers. “Yet I will concede to his request. I will go to my uncle and grant in his dying what comfort I can.'
“I see,” said the Reverend Mother. She sighed again and brought a hand to her brow. “Very well. This act is one of compassion and mercy. I must commend you – I know what this decision costs you.” She lowered her hand, her expression grave. “However, I don't trust your uncle, and thus place a condition on your errand.” She gestured to the man. “This gentleman will accompany you. It will soothe me, knowing he safeguards you. This is Dorian Valentine, a good friend of our order and a personal friend of mine.”
Elania gasped, her head jerking up. “The ghost queller,” she said, emerald-green eyes wide with awe.
Valentine's smile deepened and he bowed. “I am at your service, Blessed Sister.”
“Thank you,” she whispered back, dipping down in a curtsy.
The Reverened Mother embraced Elania. “I excuse you from the refectory tonight, my Daughter. Your dinner will be brought to you, and after you've eaten you are to go to bed. You'll leave
at first light and our entire House will see you off with our love and blessing.”
“Thank you, Reverend Mother.”
The Reverend Mother kissed her gently on the brow and left the cell. Valentine bowed again and followed, shutting the door behind. Elania stood silent for a long moment before going to the cell's shrine and kneeling before it. She attempted to pray, but could not concentrate. Her clasped hands shook and her lips quivered. With a gasping sob she buried her face in her hands, the enormity of her decision striking home. “Avianna Starqueen, Most Merciful Mother, give me strength.” Tomorrow she returned to a house that held only memories of pain and terror. Her stomach knotted and her throat filled with a choking cold. She did not want to go, but knew ultimately that, for her own sake, she must.
\Reverend Mother Rowenna Val Jannan paced before the fireplace of her study, her hands clenched, tight lines of worry driven into her face. Dorian Valentine watched her soberly from a comfortable chair, a cup of hot cider in hand.
“I do not like this,” the Reverened Mother said. “Not at all.” She looked at Valentine. “What do you know of sin-eating, Dorian?”
“It's not common,” he answered. “But neither is it exactly rare. A person agrees to take responsibility for the sins of someone recently deceased. The rituals for this can vary, but the most common ones are eating a piece of bread and drinking a cup of wine passed over the corpse, or accepting a payment of coin in its presence.” He frowned briefly. “I've never heard of it being practiced this far east. It's a tradition of the more remote regions of Blackmoore, and amongst the Aesterlings living west of the Black Hammer Hills.”
“I do not like this,” the Reverend Mother repeated. “It seems a way for a man to escape punishment rightfully earned.”
“Or an act that gives comfort to the bereaved he leaves behind,” Valentine said mildly. The Reverend Mother looked at him sharply, but after a moment blew out a breath and shook her head wryly.
“I suppose you are right,” she said. “And I perceive how thought of this eases a dying man's fears, knowing he goes to judgment in the Gray Fields cleansed of sin. But it is a comfort Aranstane Reynard in no way deserves.”
Valentine looked closely at his friend. “Those are hard words coming from you, and all the more surprising considering who you serve.”
She ceased pacing and looked up at the mural of Avianna painted above the fireplace. The goddess was gowned in silver and azure, stars glittering on her flawless brow, a slim hand held up in benediction. “I know. I pray to the Most Merciful to forgive my uncharitable thoughts. But those seeking forgiveness should be honest in their desire, and I have good reason to doubt Reynard's sincerity.”
“I need to know more, my lady,” said Valentine. “You wish me to guard your novice, but against what? It can't be a mere physical threat – any sword-priest would serve for that. What do you fear?”
“Everything.... and nothing.” The Reverend Mother sighed and sat in another chair, taking up her own cup of cider from the small table next to it. She drank, marshaling her thoughts. Valentine waited patiently.“Aranstane Reynard is a prominent citizen of Taman. He's wealthy, having inherited complete ownership of a prosperous wool and dye concern when his brother died. Through shrewd investment he increased his fortune and influence. Many seek his favor and far more are in his debt. He has little use for mercy, I fear; when he has an advantage he presses it cruelly.”
“A common habit,” said Valentine. The Reverend Mother nodded in agreement.
“Sadly too true: he favors fear over love. Until two years ago I only knew him by reputation. He never worshiped here, nor at any other temple I knew of. Then one cold night his niece Elania came to us, pounding on the abbey gate and crying for sanctuary. A freezing rain was falling and the poor child was only wearing her shift. We took her in and tended to her; she had been savagely abused. Two days later Reynard arrived and demanded – demanded – that we return his niece.” The Reverend Mother scowled. “We exchanged sharp words. I would not return Elania, of course – honest sanctuary can not be denied, and I refused to be intimidated by the wretch. He promised dire consequences for the abbey, and even dared to threaten me personally. I was on the verge of ordering the lay-brothers to whip him from the courtyard when he finally left, hurling curses over his shoulder.
“Did he try to keep his promises?” asked Valentine.
“Some who were friendly to the Abbey became cold and distant. Others reneged on agreements made to us, while our relations with the town-fathers of Taman became strained. Certain staples we depended on the town for rose prohibitively in price, or were not available at all. It has been vexing, but we've endured.” The Reverend Mother smiled softly. “Elania is worth it – she is my most promising novice, and I foresee her rising high in our Order. She never talked of what drove her out of her uncle's house that night, not even with me, but I am no fool. She healed and prospered under our care.” She finished her cider, set her mug aside and stared into the fire. “Three days ago she received a letter from Reynard; he wrote that he was dying. This was not news – for the past month we've heard that he was mortally ill. He claimed to regret his estrangement with Elania and wished to reconcile with her. He also requested she perform this ritual of sin-eating for him after he died, to ease his soul. Elania is still a novice and has no obligation to accede to such a request, especially one so outlandish. Yet she agreed to it, and though she is my Daughter I have no right to forbid this. She is following the tenets of the Most Merciful. I fear for her, Dorian.”
“But I still don't know what you fear, Rowenna,” said Valentine. “Are his servants so loyal to him that they would risk openly harming a novice of Avianna?.”
“I don't think he plans anything so crude. He is a subtle beast.”
Valentine frowned thoughtfully. “Is he a sorcerer?”
“I do not know, but there have been rumors. His brother and sister-in-law, Elania's parents, died strangely ten years ago.” She shook her head sharply. “The only thing I know for certain is that Aranstane Reynard wishes her no good. I send you into this all but blind, Dorian. Can you protect her?”
He did not answer immediately. He drained the last of his cider and closed his eyes. After a few moments he opened them and looked at her. “If that is within my power, I will,” he said quietly.
She smiled. “That is all I can ask. Thank you.”
“Don't thank me now, Reverend Mother. I have not yet earned it.”
Elania shivered as she walked down the Taman Hill Road, but not because of the chill air. She was warmly dressed against the winter morning in a good coat, sturdy leather shoes and thick stockings, a plain white wimple covering her head. The cause of her shivering came from within, her fear steadily growing with each step toward Taman Town and her uncle's house. Her heart beat hard against her ribs, her throat felt constricted and parched, and her breakfast of porridge and bread rested uneasily in her stomach. In the back of her mind a hysterical voice kept crying go back, go back! She tightened her mouth into a frown of concentration as strove to calm herself. She was very tired of fear ruling her.
She stopped for a moment, shifting her grip on her white-ash staff. She looked at it, touched her forehead to its smooth, polished surface, and said a quiet prayer to Avianna Most Merciful. She recalled the blessing the Reverend Mother bestowed upon her before she left the Abbey, and the well-wishes of the fifty women who were her sisters, and felt comforted. Her fears did not abate, but their stridency lessened.
“Are you all right?” said Dorian Valentine. Elania looked at her guardian. He had his heavy gray cloak drawn close around him. Beneath the broad brim of a battered high-crowned hat his blue eyes looked at her with gentle consideration. Elania nodded and continued down the hard-packed dirt road, Valentine following.
By gentle degrees the road wound down the slopes of Taman Hill, leading to its northwest foot and continuing over level ground. To the left stood the Taman Wood; on the right the River Valswyn leisurely flowed. Taman Town lay two miles ahead, cradled by a wide river bend. At the base of the hill a young man paced back and forth on the road. He was tall and hale, well-arrayed in fine winter clothes. His left hand toyed restlessly with the hilt of the dagger sheathed at his hip. At Elania's approach he stopped pacing and glared venomously at her, his dark eyes sharp and narrow as razors. Elania stopped and stared back, her own green eyes round and wide. Valentine stepped close behind her, watchful and alert. “Maerwyn,” Elania said.
“A letter arrived from your Reverend Mother last night,” Maerwyn said without preamble, his words spat out through gritted teeth as if each one pained him. “You've agreed to his request.” His face was flushed burning red and his clenched hands trembled. Elania confirmed his statement with a slownod. “How could you?” he demanded. “After all he's done you would help him escape the hell he rightfully earned.”
“It is an act of mercy,” she answered, her voice soft yet firm.
“It is the act of a fool,” he retorted shrilly, shaking his head and clutching at his chestnut-brown hair. “I always had doubts about your wits, but I never believed your stupidity reached such depths!”
Elania scowled, her pale cheeks flushing angrily. “Curb your tongue! I am a servant of the Starqueen, Avianna Most Merciful. I obey her will and her word, and you have no right to criticize my actions - especially in such an uncouth manner.”
“Damn you and the Starqueen,” he snarled back blasphemously. “You stupid bitch, I won't allow this! I'll-” He choked, unable to speak further. He let go of his hair and sprang at her.
Valentine was upon him in an instant, grabbing his wrist and twisting it. Maerwyn shouted and as he struggled to get free Valentine threw him hard to the ground. He lay stunned for a moment, staring blankly at the sky, then with a cry convulsed, trying to gain his feet as he fumbled for his dagger.
“No,” said Valentine. From beneath his cloak he drew a sword and leveled its point inches from Maerwyn's throat. The young man froze and stared up the length of the gleaming blade, his eyes churning with anger and hate. Valentine met his gaze with cool indifference. “Take your dagger by the sheath and toss it aside,” he commanded. Maerwyn obeyed. Valentine stepped back, lowering his sword. “Leave.” Maerwyn slowly stood. He glared over Valentine's shoulder at Elania, opening his mouth to speak. No sound emerged. He wiped his lips with the back of his gloved hand before pivoting on his heel and running toward Taman Town. Valentine watched him until he was certain he would try nothing else before turning to Elania. She clutched her staff in a white-knuckled grip, her face very pale and her lips pressed in a tight, bloodless line. “Who is he?” Valentine asked.
She did not answer immediately, her eyes riveted to Maerwyn's receding form. She took a deep, shuddering breath. “My cousin,” she said softly.
Valentine frowned thoughtfully as he sheathed his sword. “Let us go.”
Aranstane Reynard's house stood at the northern outskirts of Taman Town, a two story structure of brick and mortar, separated from its neighbors by tall stone walls and an iron gate, more fortress than domicile. Shadows clung to it like rags on a beggar and its windows were tightly shuttered against light and air. It seemed a skulking, miserable place to Valentine, any wholesomeness it ever had long choked away. He rested his hand on the pommel of his sword and looked at Elania. The young novice's eyes were closed as she silently prayed. She finished and opened her eyes, smiling tremulously at him. He wondered at the wisdom of bringing her to this place – all his instincts warned against it. He opened the unbarred gate and followed her to the front door. It opened as they approached, a man in dark livery standing in the doorway. His appearance suited the house, being dark of eye and sallow of face, his black hair lank with an unhealthy, greasy sheen. His build was lean and narrow, bony shoulders stooped forward in a hunch. Thin, pallid lips writhed in a parody of a smile as he bowed. “Mistress Elania. Welcome home.” His voice was guttural and deep, like an echo from a fouled well.
Elania looked at him without expression. “Vladan,” she said.
“We have prepared your old room,” Vladan continued. “The master is happy, so happy, that you returned.” Now he looked Valentine. “Who are you?” he asked sharply.
“The Blessed Sister's chaperone.”
“I see. Well, you have done your duty. I will see to her from here. Be off with you.”
“No. I stay with her until she returns to the Abbey.”
Vladan's dark eyes flashed angrily. “You are not welcome here. Again, be off!”
“If I go I take the Blessed Sister with me.”
Vladan scowled and looked at Elania. “Mistress, order him to go.”
“I cannot,” she said. “The Reverend Mother asked him to accompany me. I have not the authority.”
Vladan hissed in annoyance, baring yellowing, crooked teeth at Valentine. “What is your name?”
“Dorian Valentine.” Vladan started, recognizing the name and surprised by it. He stared hard at Valentine. “This is unexpected,” he muttered, licking his lips. “I must consult with Master Reynard.” He closed the door swiftly, as if in fear. Valentine snorted, grimly amused.
Elania turned to him. “I need to do this, Master Valentine,”she said. “This is an obligation I must see through. Please don't interfere.”
“I will try not to. But also remember that your safety is my highest priority.” She nodded in acknowledgment. Valentine looked hard at the unlovely house. “The Reverend Mother is right to doubt this venture. I do not like this place – it feels vile.”
“It is vile,” whispered Elania.
The door opened and Vladan bowed to Elania and Valentine. “Enter and be welcome. Master Reynard wishes to see you both.” They entered and followed the major-domo through dim halls and musty corridors. Floorboards creaked beneath their feet and drafts plucked at their flesh in spite of their winter dress. Vladan led them into a bedroom illuminated by a single feeble candle. In a great bed lay a sickness-ravaged ruin of a man, swaddled heavily in blankets. His face was whiter than fresh snow, creased and pleated by deep lines of pain. His long brown hair was gray-stained, scraggly and thin. Swollen bags bloated under his shut eyes and his breath rushed in strained whistles from his gaping mouth. Vladan leaned over him and whispered in his ear. “Master Reynard, your niece is here.”
Aranstane Reynard opened his eyes. They were feverishly bright, overlain with a yellowish film. He swallowed with difficulty. “Good. Wait in the hall, Vladan.” Reynard's voice was but a choked, moist whisper. Vladan bowed and departed. Reynard wet his lips as he wheezed painfully. “Elania, I cannot see you. Come closer.” Elania bit her own lip and hesitated before complying, stepping stiffly to the bedside. Valentine stayed close to her, doffing his hat and holding it in his right hand, his left resting on his swordhilt. He was ill-at-ease, feeling as if he was not in the presence of a sick and dying man but instead stood in the lair of a spider, foul, monstrous, venom-bloated, waiting with patient malice in the center of its web.
For a long painful minute Reynard gazed at his niece, greedy eyes roving over her. She stood taut as a drawn bowstring, not looking back, staring rigidly at the shadowy far wall. Reynard chuckled and coughed, turning his head to spit black corruption onto the sheets. “I see a chaste and sheltered life agrees with you. You have grown beautiful, since last I saw you.”
Elania said nothing. Her hand tightened perceptibly on her staff. Reynard closed his eyes and sank deeper into his bed, seeming to visibly diminish, his labored breathing growing louder. He coughed and spat again. A sour, cloying stench rose from his mouth. “I am glad you have come. It eases me to see you one last time. You're here to honor my last wish, correct? You will eat my sins, allow me to go to judgment in the Gray Fields without stain on my soul?” His strained voice was eager and desperate.
Elania nodded once, and looked at her uncle for the first time. “If the act brings you comfort in your last hours, uncle, then I will do so.”
Reynard's smile contorted his withered face horribly. “Thank you, Elania. Even after I received the letter from Val Jannan I doubted. If I had known how truly dutiful a niece you are, I would have been gentler the night I raped you.”
Valentine hissed sharply. A hard shudder wracked Elania. Her head dropped and she gripped her staff with both hands. She turned and swiftly fled the room in the wake of her uncle's laughter. Valentine watched her go then turned to Reynard, his expression murderous. He stepped toward the bed, looming over the sick man. Reynard sensed his presence and opened his eyes. “And now the stranger in my house. Valentine, eh? I've heard of you. I am not impressed.” Valentine did not answer, but merely continued to stare down at Reynard. The dying man's smile faltered, but he rallied with a shrug and chuckle. “So tell me, ghost queller, with what is Val Jannan paying you to watch over her precious chick? Not silver, I think; the Abbey is not as prosperous as it once was. Is she giving you a choice of her nuns? Or perhaps herself? For one her age she is a fine looking bitch.”
Valentine threw back his head and laughed. Reynard's smile fell away, surprise and a hint of fear lighting in his wine-yellow eyes. Valentine finished laughing and sneered contemptuously. “What a wretch you are, Master Reynard. Is that your best? I've heard more clever sallies from idiot farm boys laboring in the fields.” His expression became fiercely serious. “I accompany the Blessed Sister as a favor freely given. I honor Avianna Starqueen, and the Reverend Mother is my friend. But after taking your measure I have to wonder if she is wrong in being wary of you.'
“Wary, is she?” growled Reynard. “Is she so timid she fears a dying man? Look at me, bastard – I am but a wasted husk. What threat could I possibly pose?”
“I do not know,” said Valentine. “But I have no doubt you plot something.” He leaned over the dying man and continued in a forceful whisper. “And whatever it is, I will thwart it, and you will go to hell knowing you failed utterly.”
“How bold you are,” Reynard hissed. “Threatening a dying man who offers you hospitality - such remarkable bravery.”
“I'm brave enough in need. And I do not threaten, Reynard – I promise.” Valentine straightened, donned his hat and left the dying man muttering in his bed.
In the hallway he took a moment to settle his restrained fury, breathing deeply and forcing his hands to unclench. He looked around and found Vladan lurking near. “Where is the Blessed Sister?” said Valentine.
“In her room,” Vladan answered brusquely.
“Take me to her.” The major-domo complied with ill-grace.
The room was barren save for a small bed. Elania had thrown open the only window to let in sunlight and air, and was kneeling before it, hands clasped and lips moving silently in fervent prayer. Valentine looked at her, concerned. “Elania, do you wish to leave?” She fell still for a moment, and then shook her head. Valentine nodded, though he frowned doubtfully. He stepped to the window to take in fresh air. It faced the house's back yard, an unkempt riot of grass and knotted weeds, enclosed by the tall stone wall. He thought he saw motion on its other side; someone had dropped from its coping just as he looked out. His frown tightened and he turned to Elania. “I must attend to something. Will you be all right alone for a few minutes?” She nodded silently in reply. From his belt he unhitched a sheathed poniard and set it in front of her before leaving the room.
He found Vladan in the hall, the major-domo's eyes coldly hostile. Valentine looked at him without expression. “Is Maerwyn Reynard in the house?”
Vladan arched an eyebrow. “No. He quarreled with the Master and no longer lives here.”
“Very well. I need to step out; I'll return in a few minutes. If the Blessed Sister needs anything attend to it, but otherwise do not disturb her.” Vladan said nothing. “When I come back have a cot or a pallet brought to her room. I want to stay close to her for the duration of her stay.”
Vladan leered and bowed deeply in mockery. “Of course. Is there anything else?”
“One more thing,” said Valentine. He seized Vladan by the lapels of his dark shirt and slammed him against a wainscotted wall. He struggled and Valentine pulled him away and slammed him again harder, pinning him against the wall. “If I return to find the Blessed Sister abused, distressed, or even just disturbed, or if someone tries to deny me entry and keep me from her, I will become angry. I assure you, Vladan, incurring my anger will be an act everyone in this miserable house will deeply, lastingly regret.” Valentine thrust his face close to the major-domo's. “Do you understand me?”
“Yes!” Vladan cried, trying to twist away, unable to meet Valentine's eyes. “Lady Elania is a most welcome guest. She will be treated with all due reverence and honor!”
Valentine nodded, satisfied with this display of frightened sincerity, and let go of him. “Good. Keep that promise. I'll show myself out.”
Valentine left the house and swiftly walked around to the rear wall. Maerwyn was hanging on it with his hands, glaring up at Elania's window. Valentine's tested patience frayed further as he marched toward the young man. Maerwyn noticed his approach and dropped from the wall, facing him with angry defiance. Valentine stopped three strides away. “What is your game, boy?” he said.
“I play no games,” Maerwyn said. “Take my fool cousin back to the abbey. Let her know if she takes on my father's sins I'll see she suffers for it, no matter the cost.”
Valentine half-drew his sword. Maerwyn skipped back and made ready to run but Valentine curbed his temper, pushing the blade back into its scabbard. “Why this anger?” he asked quietly. “The Blessed Sister means no harm.”
“She's going to absolve a demon of his sins – aid him in escaping his rightful punishment!” Maerwyn gestured wildly. “For his entire life my father's done naught but bring misery to those under his power, his kin not excepted. He strove to make my every moment an agony just for his perverted pleasure. Now he's trying to twist out of the trap he made for himself, and Elania, who has suffered as much as any by his hand, is going to abet his effort.”
“That is the Blessed Sister's choice,” said Valentine. “Granting mercy is a tenet of those who serve Avianna Most Merciful. Your cousin is performing a laudable action.”
Maerwyn flinched as if stung. “She ran away to become Val Jannan's pampered pet. I've heard how she's doted on at the Silver Abbey. She fled and left me behind...” He trailed off and looked away, lost momentarily in memory.
Valentine watched him thoughtfully. “Have you no other consolations? Reynard is a wealthy man and you are his son-”
“But not his heir,” Maerwyn said with a bitter laugh. “One last twist of the knife for me. My father has scattered his wealth far, willing it to distant temples and orders. He's left me nothing save what I've managed to filch. I'll be lucky to keep the clothes on my back once he dies. No, the only consolation I have is the knowledge he'll burn in hell, and he and Elania are going to cheat me of that meager comfort. I will not let that pass; my warning stands. See that she knows it.” He stormed away to the far end of the wall, vanishing around its far corner. Valentine watched him leave, his thoughts troubled and grim.
Elania and Dorian Valentine waited three days for Aranstane Reynard's death.
The first day, after Valentine returned, was one of long, tense silence. Elania spent it in prayer, kneeling before her bedroom's open window. Valentine sat on the cot prepared for him, sheathed sword resting across his knees as he watched and waited, feeling an air of malign oppression growing around him. Something other than death was here, set into motion by the wretched master of the house, though what exactly Valentine did not know. Nor did he speculate, having only obvious premonition and little concrete fact to build upon. He waited, ready and deceptively relaxed, his ease akin to that of a great cat lying in wait by a woodland trail. Long ago, in a dangerous school, he learned the art of patience.
Prayer seemed to do Elania little good as the slow hours drew painfully on. Her soft voice grew hoarse and her lips fumbled simple devotions she knew by heart. She ate little of the dinner a drab and dull-eyed woman brought, and vomited it up ten minutes later. In the middle of the night she awoke with a cry of terror. Valentine was at her bedside instantly and she held his hand until morning dawned in cold cheerlessness.
“Do you want to leave?” Valentine asked after breakfast. Elania said no. He nodded in return then soon after began to tell her stories, recounting tales of the many lands he had visited. He was a traveler of vast experience, having been to every corner of the Aesterlands and to countries far beyond. He told her of the people he had met – the low and the high, the simple and the strange. He spoke of lonely hills he had climbed; of dark forest paths he had trod; of the great cities he had visited. He recounted strange events he had witnessed and of darkness he had confronted - of evil things he had brought down low, never to rise to might again. Elania, who for all of her short life had never left the environs of Taman, listened with wonder and for a time forgot her fear. Between his stories Valentine asked her about her life at the Silver Abbey, of her duties and pleasures and the lessons she learned as a novice of Avianna Most Merciful. She thought such things dull in comparison to his experiences, but Valentine listened with respectful interest.
Elania ate dinner with better appetite, and slept the second night through.
Early the evening of the third day she sat on her bed, paging through her small prayer book while Valentine seemingly dozed on his cot. A knock rumbled portentously on the bedroom door. She glanced at the door while Valentine swiftly rose. “Enter,” he called. Vladan stepped in, his sallow face quite pale. He ignored Valentine, looking at Elania with piercing, almost predatory directness.
“Master Reynard is dead,” he said. “He died this past hour. We've prepared his body and it awaits your attentions, Lady Elania.”
Elania set aside her prayer book and stood. “Very well. Give me a few moments.” She trembled slightly, but her voice was firm. Vladan bowed out of the room. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Valentine frowned at the door then shrugged. He strapped on his sword belt, hitching his sword and poniard to it before donning his battered hat. “Gather your things,” he said. “We quit this house the moment you finish the ritual.”
Elania nodded. “Yes. I will be glad to finally be free.” She opened her eyes and did as she was bid.
Aranstane Reynard waited in a small, barren chamber dimly lit by inadequate lamps, their tiny, hesitant flames casting shadows that crawled grotesquely across walls painted a garish crimson. Reynard's remains lay on a long table, wrapped in a winding sheet, only his slack ruin of a face exposed. A wooden tray rested on his famished chest, on which were set a wooden cup of wine and a crust of bread. The dull-eyed woman who served Elania and Valentine their meals stood in attendance, accompanied by an old man dressed in rough brown homespun, bent and haggard from years of hard service. Their faces were colorless, pinched with tension, and they shifted uneasily.
Vladan gestured at his master's corpse. Elania started forward but stopped when Valentine held up a hand. “Wait.” He went to Reynard and looked down at him. Death had not leavened his unloveliness. Valentine noticed his eyes were not completely shut – wine-yellow slits glittered in the poor lamplight. Valentine turned away and walked to one of the walls. Its paint seemed fresh, only recently dried. He peered closely at it, reached out with a fingertip and slowly traced out a waving pattern. He hissed angrily, jerking his hand away and stalking to the far wall. He looked it over carefully, gave the remaining walls quick glances then strode to Vladan. “Do you think me a fool?” he demanded. “Did you believe I would not notice?”
“I know naught what you mean,” said Vladan with offended contempt. “The room was prepared as the Master requested. We but followed his instructions.”
“What is it?” said Elania. “What's wrong?”
“There are sigils painted on the walls,” said Valentine. “Drawn in a slightly darker shade of crimson and camouflaged against a casual inspection but still discernible, and thus potent.” Elania looked hard at the nearest wall, stepping close to it. She could just see a writhing pattern of intersecting lines radiating from an irregular circle. “What do they mean?” she asked.
“I'm not certain. I've not seen their like before. I do know they are not protective wardings, and that is suggestive enough in itself.” He stood next to her. “Let us go.”
“After I perform the ritual.”
“The best way to survive a trap is to avoid it altogether.” Elania did not answer. “You owe your uncle nothing.”
Elania looked at Valentine, her mouth pursed tightly. Her green eyes were bright with a fierceness she had not shown before. “I am not doing this for my uncle, Master Valentine.”
He stared back at her for a long moment. “Very well.” He drew his sword. Elania noticed an inscription along its edge – large Spartani letters boldly and skillfully etched into the steel. Against my edge all darkness fails. “I will aid you as best I can,” said Valentine.
“Thank you.” She turned from him and walked to where her uncle lay. She stared at him, and for a moment her teeth flashed in an anguished snarl. She swallowed and looked at Vladan. “What must I do?”
Vladan gestured at the wooden tray. “Simply eat and drink what is laid out before you. In doing so you take the Master's sins as your own.”
Elania glanced at the crust of bread and cup of wine. “No.”
“That is how the ritual is performed,” said Vladan sharply.
“No,” she said again, more forcefully. “That is disgusting and crude.” She flipped the tray off of her uncle, spilling the wine, sending the cup clattering and the crust skittering and crumbling across the bare floor. The woman and old man gaped and exchanged fearful glances. Vladan sputtered an indignant protest. “I am a servant of the Most Merciful,” she said. “I will humbly petition her to lift the burden of my uncle's sins from him and lay it upon my shoulders.” She glared at Reynard, her mouth a snarl. “And in doing so I rid myself of him forever.” She took hold of her staff with both hands, spending a moment to compose herself. She sighed, letting her sudden anger drain away, her face becoming calm. She knelt, bowing her head so her brow touched her staff and began to softly pray.
From the wall Valentine watched, running a gloved thumb over his sword's inscription as his gaze methodically roamed the chamber. The dull-eyed woman and decrepit man shuffled nervously while Vladan glared at Elania. The young woman ignored them, her eyes shut tight as she entreated her goddess. The shadows continued their strange play on the walls. Valentine looked at Reynard's shrouded form and started – the corpse's slack mouth had tightened into a pleased smile.
A deep coldness passed over Valentine. Impatiently he shook it off, only to feel it redouble when he saw Reynard's eyes slowly open. On the walls the shadows stopped crawling, seeming to assume depth and dimension, swelling like plague-blackened blisters. Sparks ignited within them – hot, dirty lights of bloody red and sickly green, growing steadily brighter.
Reynard's eyes fully opened; in the lamplight they seemed alive with malicious amusement. The smile on his cold lips became a leering grin. Harsh whispers hummed through the air, guttural and obscene, more felt by the flesh than heard by the ear. The two servants clutched at each other in desperate fear. Vladan had grown very pale, his lean body trembling, yet he smiled, licking his thin lips as he stared at Elania, his gaze gloating and anticipatory. She seemed unaware of the tumult growing around her, the communion with her goddess demanding her complete attention. Valentine strode up behind her and encircled the kneeling woman with his body, arms and sword.
“What are you doing?” demanded Vladan. Valentine ignored him, concentrating on the hell evolving around Elania and himself. The bubbling shadows continued to distend, twisting into inchoate dwarfish forms hanging spider-like on the walls, their filthy sparks now burning from featureless lumpen heads. The shadow-things swayed and rippled as the whispering grew louder and more distinct. Valentine grimaced violently, swallowing down the fear numbing his mouth, and slowly and loudly spoke, pronouncing his words with desperate care.
“Corlanth Crownking guard us! Your hand upon us, your shield between us and the Hungry Dark! Aid us, here in our hour of need!” Elania ceased praying and opened her eyes. With a gasp she pressed back against Valentine's legs. The shadow-things movements grew wilder. On the table the gloating smile fell from the lips of Reynard's corpse, while the amused gleam in his eyes faded into something else. “Corlanth Sunkindler heed us! Burn the shadow, send flying the night! Ward us from evil and aid us in our time of peril. Corlanth Crownking, Father and Maker, your power we invoke!” Valentine finished by shouting four potent Auld Spartani words, and as his spell ended the whispering died, leaving a menacing silence. The shadows froze stock-still, their dirty spark-eyes diminishing to sputtering motes.
“What have you done?” said Vladan. The demand was whispered, but it reverberated like a thunderclap in the ominous quiet. On the table the corpse of Aranstane Reynard slowly sat up. The serving-woman wept in terror, falling to her knees and covering her face. The old man convulsively clutched his shirt. Vladan gaped and swayed, nearly falling over. Elania gasped again, shivering violently, and began anew her prayers. Valentine took hold of his swordhilt with both hands, shifting it to the ready, and stepped in front of Elania.
Reynard's corpse finished rising, sitting rigidly on the table, its death-ravaged face horribly twisted, eyes flashing stones of yellowed quartz. It shuddered, its shroud unraveling, and its mouth fell open. It began to groan, softly at first but quickly growing louder. There was pain in the groan – pain and despair, and a terrible fear.
Then the shadows surged from the walls, crashing over Reynard in a violent ebon tide, and the corpse's groan became a piercing scream. Valentine turned to Elania and pulled her to her feet. “GO!” he shouted. Elania flew from the room, Valentine on her heels. He paused briefly at the door to look back. A writhing mass of shadows enveloped Aranstane Reynard. The corpse continued to shriek, and beneath its cries Valentine could just discern a more terrible sound – a noise that reminded him of meat being torn from a joint. Valentine could not see the two servants but heard their screams adding to the cacophony. Vladan was sprawled on the floor, face pressed against it, hands clapped hard over his ears.
Valentine and Elania fled the house into the cold night, the stars shining clean and clear, the almost-full moon illuminating Taman's streets. They ran a fifth of a mile when Elania had to stop. She dropped her staff and leaned back against the wall of a cottage, gulping air harshly, her wimple thrown back and her hair a wild golden halo around her head. She shivered hard and buried her face in her slim hands. Valentine stood watch, facing toward Reynard's home, sword still drawn, the chill shine of moonlight gleaming on the blade. He looked at Elania when her breathing calmed. “It seems that I kept my promise to your uncle.”
Elania let her hands fall. Her green eyes were wide with the memory of horror. “What were those things?” she whispered.
“I think they were Reynard's sins,” Valentine answered. “Your prayers to Avianna, asking her to let you assume their burden, triggered the sigils concealed on the walls, which in turn gave those sins hovering around us form and substance. If not for my spell they would have fallen upon you.” He grimaced and spat on the lane. “Crownking, what a filthy trap – using your act of mercy against you.”
A great sob wracked Elania. “Damn him,” she said, her voice harsh with anger and hate. “Avianna Most Merciful forgive me, by I hope he burns in hell forever.” She hugged herself tightly as she trembled. Finally she let out a great, shuddering sigh, letting her arms fall as she mastered herself. She smiled at Valentine with weary sadness as she retrieved her staff. Suddenly she gasped. “I felt something.”
Valentine looked down the lane. In the distance he perceived vague movement, and could just discern a spark of scummy red light.
“Reynard's sins follow you,” he said. “Only a few, I think, thank Corlanth and his Queen. Most of them must have stayed in hell with your uncle's soul.” He turned to her. “Let us go to the Abbey. They will not follow you onto sanctified ground, and when dawn comes the sun will burn them to nothing.” Elania was trembling again. Valentine laid his free hand on her shoulder. “Don't let fear overwhelm you – you are aware of them now, and thus can defend yourself. Your will and faith are powerful protection, and I am here with you.” The novice swallowed hard and nodded. They started for Taman Hill.
They traversed the town with cautious speed, wary of an ambush or sudden assault from behind, but the sins of Reynard seemed content to merely follow, making no effort to overtake them. Perhaps they, too, were wary, uncertain they could match the magic and force of will Valentine had used to turn them from Elania. Yet they continued to pursue, hunched, misshapen shadows gliding through the moonlit night, whispering weirdly to each other.
They reached the outskirts of town, where the Taman Hill Road began, when suddenly Valentine stepped before Elania, gesturing to her to halt. Five men were on the road, barring the way. Four were obvious river toughs, clad in tarry woolen smocks or coats, armed with long knives and crude cudgels. The fifth was Maerwyn Reynard. He had recovered his dagger; it gleamed cruelly in his hand. Valentine looked at him with disdain. “Let us pass,” he said.
“I warned you,” said Maerwyn to Elania, ignoring Valentine, looking at his cousin with wild, angry eyes. “I told your man I'd make you pay if you helped my father, yet you went through with it. You stupid, selfish bitch.”
“Watch how you speak to me,” Elania snapped. Her face was strained, snow-white with weariness, but her eyes were hot with her own rising anger. “It was my decision – you have no right to make such for me.”
“I'll speak to you as I like. You forfeited any consideration when you deserted me. Your actions tonight are the final injury I'll endure.”
“Enough,” snarled Valentine, taking a step forward, sword raised. “Get out of our way, or else be killed.” The youngest of the toughs laughed but the other three eyed him warily. Maerwyn sneered. “My cousin dies with me. You've my oath on that.”
“Stop this foolishness, ”said Elania. “I'm sorry I left you alone with Uncle, Maerwyn. But I had to leave his house.” Anguish flickered briefly over her face. “I'm sorry, and I'm willing to make amends. I'll help you heal the wounds on your soul. You have the chance to do so now – he's dead. Dead and damned.”
“Not damned!” he shrieked. He slashed the air wildly in rage. “How can he be when you carry his sins? You helped him escape hell!”
“I did agree to take on his sins as an act of mercy, and for reasons of my own, but he squandered that absolution for one last chance to hurt me. He paid for it. Paid for it terribly.”
Maerwyn stared at her, unbelieving. “You lie.”
“She speaks the truth,” said Valentine. “Your father's sins tore his corpse to pieces and dragged his soul down screaming into darkness.”
“You both lie! You're trying to trick me, cheat me!”
“Maerwyn,” Elania began, but stopped with a gasp. Coldness far sharper than winter night's grasped her. Her eyes grew wide with a frightening insight. “Maerwyn, I beg you – stop this. You're in great danger.” Valentine heard the strain in her voice and gritted his teeth. It cost him considerable effort not to look back, but he dared not take his eyes off Maerwyn and his hired men.
“I'm not afraid of your man,” said Maerwyn.
“It's not me you should fear now,” said Valentine. He had surmised Elania's realization. “Listen to the Blessed Sister.”
“Please, Maerwyn!” Elania dropped her staff, clasping her hand in desperate supplication. “Let go your hate. You're endangering your very soul!”
Maerwyn's laughter was wild and not wholly sane. “After all I've suffered, do you think I care about damning myself? Enough!” He looked at his men. “Earn what I'm paying you. Kill the man – leave my cousin for me.”
They did not heed him. They stared into the darkness behind Valentine and Elania, their faces bloodless, horror distending their eyes. They spun about, casting away their weapons and running in screaming terror. He watched them flee in stupefied disbelief before crying out when malformed shadows rushed past his cousin and her guardian and fell upon him.
Elania screamed and ran to Maerwyn; Valentine charged forward, sword raised. But before either took three steps the shadows engulfing the young man convulsed then vanished, sinking swiftly into the ground, leaving Maerwyn sprawled on his back, shaking in the throes of a violent fit. His eyes bulged from their sockets as his teeth crashed together and his heels hammered the ground. His flesh was leeched of all color and his hands were hooked in grotesque claws. Suddenly the fit ended, his body falling limp as his head lolled to one side. A faint, wet sigh escaped his slack mouth.
Elania knelt by Maerwyn and cradled him, bowing her head close to his and gently kissing his brow. Valentine slowly sheathed his sword. Suddenly tired, he rocked back on his heels and looked to the starry sky.
In the early dawn Dorian Valentine and Elania Reynard wearily traveled the Taman Hill Road. They had spent a sleepless night at the home of an Abbey lay-brother, after explaining to the town authorities the circumstances of Maerwyn's death and making arrangements for his body. Their story was met with some incredulity, but was ultimately accepted.
They spoke only twice during their return to the Silver Abbey. Halfway up the hill Valentine said to Elania: “You are a brave woman.”
Elania smiled wanly. “I don't know if I'm truly brave. I was just... tired. Tired of fearing my uncle. Tired of hating him. Agreeing to serve as his sin-eater was an attempt to rid myself of those feelings. I thought seeing him one last time, dead and forever gone, would free me of him at last.” She looked toward the Abbey, serene on the hill's summit. “It feels so good to be going home.”
They continued in silence to the Abbey's open gates. There Elania stopped and looked earnestly at Valentine. “Could we have saved Maerwyn?” she asked. “Could anything have been done?”
With regret Valentine shook his head. “No, Blessed Sister. Your cousin hated too well. He was too much his father's son.”
© July, 2015 Jeremy Harper
Jeremy Harper lives and writes in Massachusetts. He is the author of two previous Dorian Valentine tales, both published in Lore. His review of Imaro by Charles Saunders appeared in Swords & Sorcery in 2012.