Hand of the King's Evil
That night they came in the brief dusk to a small community of huts huddled in the foothills' lee, on the banks of a rushing stream. News of their coming had flown ahead of them, as it always did; they found a fire of welcome blazing in the open space between the huts, the village headman on his feet with an awkward speech prepared, and three quiet bodies laid out at his back.
The preacher stepped forward, pushing back his hood; his disciples made a ring around him, the headman, the sick and the fire, encompassing all within their silence. Blaise and his companions pressed close at their backs, and the villagers came shyly, hopefully out to stand in their own quiet knot a little distance off. They were Catari, but that was not unusual; this disease discriminated, it struck largely at the poor, and the poor of Outremer were most of them Catari. Fess had been an exception. Unless it was that the disease picked its places rather than its victims: never a castle or a town, always those convenient settlements a day's hard march ahead, always close to the rising hills but never so close as to slow the preacher's progress. Blaise's people kept mostly to the towns, even after forty years of occupation; out here the lords and their servants kept to their manors, where a rabble like this would be closely watched and questioned. If Blaise had wanted to move a congregation quickly through the country, he would have picked this route or one much like it.
"...Holy one, I have said enough. What more? There is only this: we are not of your faith, but our prayers have failed as our medicine has. Can you, will you save our children?"
"I can, and I will." The preacher's face looked at its finest, its strongest and most noble in this light, all glare and guttering shadows. By day he seemed weaker, more gaunt, half mad; tonight, though, Blaise knew exactly what these hopeful, hungry peasants would be seeing. The high brow and the backswept hair that hung to his shoulders; the eyes that glittered from the blackness of their sunken hollows; the thin lips that snapped at words and were overhung by the great hooked nose that was its own monument. Nameless and potent, he made a striking figure, terrifying in the way that those who hold power and hidden knowledge are always terrifying to the weak and ignorant. Blaise counted himself with the villagers in this; at such a moment he could forget even that Magister Fulke frightened him the more.
"Bring them to me," the preacher said, and the three still forms were carried forward, by men who flinched back from the touch of his shadow but were still prepared to lay their children at his feet.
These really were children, Blaise saw. Swathed in heavy blankets with only their faces showing, and those veiled by sickness and the uncertain light, they were indeterminate of gender, but children none the less. The smallest would stand only half the height of a man - even a short Catari man - if it could or would stand at all. Now, not; but it would do shortly. Nothing could be more certain.
The village folk must be less certain, they hadn't seen what Blaise had; but still they'd give their children over into alien hands, to an alien religion even, sooner than watch them die. Blaise thought he'd let any son or daughter of his go to death and paradise, before he'd let them go to a Catari priest for a dubious healing. But then, Blaise was not a father. Nor a husband, nor ever an acknowledged son; he knew that he didn't understand the kind of love that knotted families together. There were parents among the camp-followers who thought their healed children monsters, possessed, perverted, irredeemable. Blaise had heard them say so. And yet they followed where the preacher led, where the army marched, many miles from home towards a war that was nothing of theirs. It must be some tie of flesh that dragged them, a need that clung day after hopeless day, to keep gazing on a face they'd loved even when the spirit was long lost.
And every night they gathered around a fire such as this, they watched this same scene played out time and time again with others' children, or grandmothers, or lovers. And they did nothing, said nothing, held their hands as still as their tongues when he thought they should have been screaming warnings, fighting to prevent another family from suffering as they did. He didn't believe that the pain could be easier, for being shared. There was an expression that Blaise had heard from the Catari, they spoke of white bones walking when they meant that a man was sure to die. Here it made a different, a terrible kind of sense. Himself, he'd willingly fling earth to cover the face of a dead friend sooner than see that face stare blindly into the sun as it hauled its shadow south. But he was a man alone, and most people were a mystery to him.
The preacher crouched above the children's silence. His long fingers reached to unpeel their coverings and the clothes they wore beneath, to show the dull grey slackness of their skin that even the fierce firelight couldn't enliven. Then he slipped a hand inside his own rough robes to pull forth the talisman that had brought them all this far, and would take them further yet.
A blessed relic, he said it was, the mummified hand of a long-dead saint that he had recovered from a cave in the wilderness. The instrument of his healing, he said it was, that also. Blaise had never seen it close; from this distance, from any distance it looked like a claw struck from some bird of myth and monstrosity. Black and twisted, glinting strangely, that dead thing caught the light and played with it as the living victims of the sickness could not. It had seemed bigger once, at the first healing that Blaise had witnessed; he remembered how everything had seemed bigger and more important when he was a child, and thought that he was ageing faster now.
There was nothing, almost nothing to the miracle itself. If this were true salvation - a life drawn back from the very mouth of hell, a soul's second chance gifted by the God's grace, the touch of a saint and the word and the prayer of a preacher - then there ought to be ritual, Blaise thought, there ought to be ceremony and more. A sight of the God Himself, perhaps, his voice in the thunder and his eyes' glare in the lightning of a storm. Something so momentous ought to rive rocks and send birds wheeling, screaming under a sky ripped like silk to let the stars fall down...
Instead of which, the preacher simply bent above the slack and heedless bodies, one by one. He muttered something that Blaise had never yet been able to hear, for all the nights of trying; he stretched down to touch the children's lips with the desiccated fingers of his saintly, shrivelled hand; he stepped away.
And one by one, in the order of their touching, the children stirred. One by one they sat up, ungainly in their all-but-abandoned bodies; one by one they rose slowly to their feet to stand naked in the firelight and silence.
That was all there was to see, figures and movement and stillness among the ever-shifting shadows. Blaise listened more than he watched, trying even yet to learn something, anything that he could offer to his master. He listened hardest in the moments of healing, but there wasn't so much as a tightening of breath from the children, a sudden catch on slippery life or a gasp at the snatching of their souls.
As they rose up, the quiet was absolute. They didn't speak, and neither did the preacher; nor the disciples, of course, nor the camp-followers who had seen it all before, so often seen it all, and had each of them their own reasons to hold their tongues; nor the gaping villagers, crushed mute by the casual impact of a wonder.
At last something snapped abruptly in the fire's heart, snapping also that endless moment that had caught them all like insects in amber. It broke the silence and the stillness both. The villagers surged forward, voices rising, crying in their own tongue that Blaise had never learned to understand; the preacher flung his arms out, his hands upraised to halt them, as he always did.
"Back, be still!"
They had come no nearer than the circle of disciples in any case, those dumb servants would let no rabble through; still, his voice and gesture quelled their rush. A few women were shrieking yet, mothers or aunts at a guess, but the rest were quiet if they could not be still, shifting restlessly on their feet, impatient to hear what he would say to them. They were his dogs for now, if he would use them so.
It seemed for a while as though he would not use them at all. He turned his back on the mass of villagers, and spoke to their children only.
"Dress yourselves," he said, and they did, in the patched and tattered robes they'd worn beneath their shrouding blankets.
Then, "What will you do?"
It took them a while, as it seemed, to find their voices. The words when they did come were slurred and tumbled across each other, though every child said the same and they were trying to speak together.
"We will follow you, preacher."
"You hear them?" He turned around slowly, arms stretched wide. "They came when I called, when I touched them with this holy relic; now they say they will follow me, although they do not know where I lead. That is faith, pure faith; they give themselves into my hands, from whom they have received blessing. That is as it should be. How many of you will do the same, when I tell you of the blessings that await you...?"
There was protest, of course, there was the wailing of women, but Blaise had heard the same from what might as well have been the same women, night after night. He thought they wailed by rote, because it was expected of them. He gave it no more heed than the preacher did, or any who followed him, or the men of the village. The disciples sat down in their ordered circle and everyone else shadowed their movement, sitting behind in groups and clusters and huddles. Only the preacher remained on his feet. His voice cut easily through the women's noise, seeming to separate them from their distress as they were already separated from their menfolk, so that they fell quickly silent.
"Your children have been touched by evil," the preacher said, "and saved only by the touch of the God. They are not the first. Here with me are many others who have suffered the same, and have been equally blessed. More were not so fortunate; many have died before I could reach them, and their souls have been lost to eternity. This wickedness is spawned in Surayon, the cursed land of which you will have heard. It lies to the south, hidden by sorcerers. We are the God's weapon, which he will hurl against it like a spear from His own hand. Follow me, and I will lead you to a place from where we can strike deep into the heart of impiety, cleanse the poison from this our land, free all our children from the kiss of demon's breath..."
And more, much more, but Blaise had heard it all before. And much like it from Magister Fulke at the Roq. Once he'd been rapt, he was still persuaded; he simply didn't need to listen any longer.
He wished that once, just once someone would challenge the preacher, would ask the question that burned always in the back of his own mind: how a ragtag band of dreamers such as this could hope to do what a generation of lords and their armies had failed at, time and again. Surayon was small, to be sure, just a fingernail's width torn from every map he'd seen. Even so, these few could never overrun it if they'd been a well-armed military force. The preacher had a faith that blazed, and Blaise himself believed devoutly in the power of the God; but he was a soldier yet, and he believed also in the simple power of the sword, the weight of men in battle. There were fewer swords here than there were strong men, and those were few enough. Women and children outnumbered them; they added nothing, made only an extra burden, a weakness.
While he was sure that justice must eventually come to Surayon, and that it must come with the God's blessing, Blaise could not see that blessing here. He looked at the disciples and saw the soul-stolen, empty shells. Nor was he alone in that; and yet people followed regardless, and no one questioned the preacher.
When he came to unbind his foot that night, he ripped scabs away with the rags, wincing at the sudden sting of it and then again at the sight of fresh blood oozing from the cut. He'd been hurt before, and far worse, but a soldier needed his feet in good condition. So, self-evidently, did a spy.
Still, let it bleed. Let it wash out whatever dust and grit had worked its way inside during the day's march. He'd seen a man with his leg swollen up to the girth of a tree-trunk; when Blaise had cut into it to release the poison, he'd found a speck of black in the flood of yellow pus, a grain of dirt, the pearl in the oyster. Hard to believe that so much harm could come from such a small invader, but so it was, or so the doctors told him. And greater harm even than he'd seen: the man had died despite his rough surgery.
Perhaps that was what the preacher meant for Surayon, if the preacher meant anything at all, if he saw anything other than himself swathed in lightnings and striking heretics down with a glare. Perhaps he thought that his small force could poison somehow, ulcerate, keep the eyes and minds of the sorcerers turned inward so that they neglected to hide their borders. A greater army could come in to purge the valley princedom - and there was a greater army, that much Blaise knew. Marshal Fulke was marching with the Ransomers and many men else, more daily. That might have been the preacher's plan, it might have been joint strategy except that so far as he knew, the preacher had no inkling of that other force and certainly no contact with it.
No, there was no organisation in this. The man was mad, was all. Mad and gifted, and a holy fool withal; but a sanctified madman was still mad, and his disciples were the echo of himself, mindless and stumbling towards they knew not what.
No more did Blaise know; and Magister Fulke would ask him, ask him soon, and he would have no answer. That frightened him, more than any of the company he kept. He wrapped himself up in his blanket and in Fess's too, aware tonight of how cold it could be just the other side of the mountains. They held back the desert as a sea-wall holds the sea, but it seemed to him that desert air was slipping over, slopping over the brim, bringing the touch of desolation with it. He laid his head on good damp soil and smelled dry sand, and shivered. He closed his ears to the murmur of voices where he knew that mothers were speaking uselessly to their lost children, closed his mind to the future, tried to sleep.
And failed, as he had been certain that he would. His foot throbbed, his soul ached for sick children, deluded adults, himself. He lay on his back, on his side, on his belly; he gazed at the stars, at the dying fire, at nothing at all. Whichever way he lay, he could find no rest; whichever way he looked, he could see no path to glory, no hope for any one of his companions on this mad march. Only failure and death could lie ahead, just as death and failure were all that lay behind him, all his life.
Almost on the wings of that thought came a touch, a cold and clamping kiss on the sole of his foot. No natural cramp, no twinge of pain: he sat bolt upright, staring, and for a moment there seemed to be an eddy of mist around his blankets, that seemed to be sucked suddenly inward through the weave and through the rags he'd wrapped around his foot, as though the cut there had opened like a mouth to draw it in.
Demon's breath, he thought, as the chill of it surged up the bones of his leg, spreading in an instant through all his body. He opened his mouth to cry it aloud, to wake the sleepers all around him; and felt it reach his mind, clouding his sight and numbing his intelligence with a bitter lethargy.
Slowly, slowly he lay back down, as the strength ebbed away from his muscles. His blankets had fallen away, when he sat up; he was so cold, he thought vaguely that he ought to reach out and pull them up to cover him again. His arm wouldn't respond, though, and he had no will to force it. He was aware yet, he knew who and what he was - I am Blaise, I am a soldier and a spy - but that was all, so little, he felt like a pale flame in a vast night, a spirit cut adrift from his body.
He lost all sense of time's passing. He could see the stars dimly, as though through a fog, and his eyes tracked their course as they wheeled above him. It signified nothing, he didn't understand that nor the gradual brightening in one quarter of the sky, the sudden swift uprising of the sun. He could find the word for it, he had its name but not its meaning now.
There were sounds all about him, as there always had been; they made no more sense than the moving lights did, stars and sun. Again he could identify, but find no pattern; what had been breathing, snores, the single bark of a fox became words, voices, talking. He heard the words, but they could not reach him.
He saw faces, bodies, people leaning above him. These did not talk. He felt himself lifted by many hands. The blueing sky turned over him, or else he turned beneath it, he did not know; the sun glared at him but could not burn through the mist that cloaked his eyes. After a hectic minute he was laid down again. The hands opened all his clothing, and then withdrew; a single figure loomed at his feet. His mind said preacher, but he did not understand it.
The figure stooped, reaching a thing towards him. It was black, it glistened like steel where the light struck; it was shaped like a claw, like a ravaged hand, fingers and thumb bent sharply. His mind said relic, though he did not know what that meant.
He felt one finger catch at his lip, tugging it downward; he felt something, a hint of nothing solid slide into his mouth. Not solid, but sharp regardless: it lay like a breath of ice against the coldness of his tongue, and was colder yet. His mind said demon's breath, and though it was only a name without significance, he still thought it was wrong.
It sank into his tongue and nested there, and seemed to draw everything that was chill in his body towards itself, and so grow still more chill. He felt the first warmth of the sun against his skin, but did not feel warmed by it, only that what hid in his tongue had stolen all the cold that was in him.
His eyes cleared; he could see precisely, the preacher's face with its sunken eyes and its beaked nose. Beak and claw he thought, and knew this time what he meant: how the preacher was a hawk, an eagle, fierce and predatory.
"Stand up," the preacher said, "and dress yourself."
He understood the words, and felt his body stirring to obey, though not at his own command. He watched his own fingers fumble with cloth and ties, slow and awkward like a child's hands at an unaccustomed task. He wanted to show them how easy it was, but could find no way to do so.
He'd have liked to say his own name, if only to hear it spoken one more time, just the once; but found that he couldn't quite remember it, as though it were freshly lost. He might have liked to say anything at all, he thought, only that his tongue was cold and heavy, a stone in the mouth and not for talking. Something else was heavy, a weight inside his robe, a duty that had been fearful once. There was a man in a hot land, where there was no sun. The weight was candle; he must light the candle and speak to the man. But there were words to speak first above the candle, and he could not pin them down.
Besides, there was no need to speak where no one listened. His body knew what to do, there were others of its kind all around him, turning now, leading, and it followed, it carried him away.
All day they marched in line and he with them, the disciples, one of them. He left his bedroll behind, and the boy Fess's too, and the sword also. He felt no pain, no weariness; he felt nothing, not even fear. He could see, he could hear, but he was drifting, unconnected, unconcerned.
That evening there was no village, no sick ones to be healed, to be drawn in. Only the preacher, standing on a rock where all could see him in the last of the light. The disciples were clustered close around him, but he spoke over their heads, to the others who packed behind.
"The demon that is in Surayon holds its breath," he said. "There will be no more sickness now. Now is the time to run, to be ready to strike when we may. We few will be enough; the God has promised me. Those among you who can keep up, you are welcome; for the rest, follow if you will, do what you can. By the time you reach Surayon, it will lie open before you. Do not be afraid to kill; evil must be burned out, corrupted flesh cut away, or the demon will breathe again."
He leaped down from the rock in a swirl of robes and began to run steadily into the gathering dark. His path no longer lay due south but south and east, towards the hills. The disciples followed, silent in their lines, their legs rising and falling, feet pounding all in time with the preacher's.
All through the dark they ran and on into the morning, while the land rose and rose beneath and around them. Sunlight showed them peaks and crags, bitter shadows. They ran on.
Background motif based on the hand reliquary of St. Nicholas in the collection of the Cilicia Museum, located within the Armenian Patriarcate in Antelias, Lebanon.
Used by kind permission of the Museum.